Is Dallas design a fit for O'Hare?
A Texas-size plan, but on far less land
By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Published November 21, 2005
DALLAS -- Chicago aviation officials like to point to the 31-year-old airport in Dallas as a proven model for the parallel runways envisioned at the future O'Hare International Airport.
The goal is to duplicate the success of Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, the nation's third-busiest airfield, by adding hundreds more flights each day while holding delays and cancellations to a minimum.
Among civil engineers who build airports, though, there is a truism about airfield design: "You've seen one airport, you've seen one airport."
And, indeed, a comparison of the Dallas airport against the blueprint for new runways at O'Hare suggests that Chicago's almost $15 billion plan to rebuild O'Hare by copying Dallas suffers from major flaws, according to Federal Aviation Administration officials and air-traffic controllers.
Among the differences:
- DFW, as the Texas airport is known, is almost three times the size of O'Hare.
- The weather in northern Texas where Dallas sits is mainly dry and clear, much better than the wind, rain and snow that pelt Chicago.
- The setup of terminals is different from O'Hare, O'Hare's, and DFW's air routes do not impede the airspace of Dallas' Love Field the way O'Hare's interfere with the airspace of Midway Airport.
- And although Chicago officials hope to tailor O'Hare to look like Dallas--they are awaiting word from the FAA on a $300 million federal funding request--Dallas is modernizing its 1970s-era airport design, with help from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the FAA, to cut delays and reduce the risk of runway accidents.
Dallas' redesign is being accomplished by adding perimeter taxiways to avoid taxiing airplanes in front of other planes that are set to take off.
That's not a viable option for O'Hare, even after the expansion, because the airport doesn't have room, according to the FAA.
"If you could take this airport, lift it off the ground and take it up to Chicago, match your wind and drop it on the ground, it wouldn't work," said Dallas air-traffic controller Ric Loewen from his perch in the control tower.
But that doesn't stop Rosemarie Andolino, executive director of the O'Hare Modernization Program, from entertaining audiences by placing a map of the expanded O'Hare alongside the a map of the existing DFW.
As she did before a gathering last year of the City Club of Chicago--a business group that she is scheduled to address again Monday--Andolino rotates the Dallas map 90 degrees to the east. That shifts Dallas' north-south runways to an east-to-west alignment like what is planned for six of the runways at O'Hare. Both layouts also sport two angled crosswind runways.
DFW then looks pretty similar to the O'Hare plan, which the FAA approved Sept. 30, prompting a court challenge from expansion opponents that temporarily halted construction.
The centerpiece of the overhaul planned for the Dallas airfield is a system of perimeter taxiways that loop around the runways. The FAA provided funding for the plan in August.
Planes that have landed will move swiftly along the outskirts of runways, rather than across them, to reach the terminals. The taxiways will reduce potentially dangerous runway crossings by aircraft from 1,700 a day to no more than a few hundred, airport and FAA officials said. They will also help to reduce the number of planes on the runway waiting for crossing planes to clear before they take off.
Under O'Hare's expansion plan, though, runway crossings will jump to 2,100 a day from about 100 now, according to the FAA.
"Dallas has had a number of close calls over the years, so they are doing something about it with the perimeter system," said Craig Burzych, president at the O'Hare control tower of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Instead of being proactive by trying to reduce runway incursions, which the FAA says are the No. 1 danger at airports, Chicago's plan is like playing with fire."
The FAA said it is working with controllers and the airlines to implement safe procedures at the expanded O'Hare to deal with the increase in runway crossings. One proposal would require planes to taxi behind aircraft sitting on a runway rather than in front whenever possible.
"Perimeter taxiways are a good idea, and whenever it is possible, we should do it," said Barry Cooper, a top FAA manager who headed the team that approved O'Hare expansion. "Unfortunately, we don't have the real estate to do it at O'Hare."
Three serious near-collisions on runways in Boston, New York and Las Vegas this year prompted the National Transportation Safety Board on Nov. 15 to again press for quicker action by the FAA to reduce such dangers.
There were 326 runway incursions nationwide in fiscal 2004 and 324 in fiscal 2005, according to the FAA.
Parallel runways, as opposed to the intersecting-runway pattern at O'Hare, allow more airplanes to land each hour, especially when visibility is reduced. But if the airport footprint is not large enough to allow widely spaced parallel runways, which ensure that low-flying planes are kept safely apart, the only solution for air-traffic controllers is to slow down the rate of departing flights to avoid interference with arrivals.
The worldwide trend is to build new airports on large expanses of land to allow planes to safely touch down and take off simultaneously, even in bad weather. Large tracts of land also buffer surrounding populations from jet noise.
DFW covers 18,000 acres. O'Hare would grow from 6,789 acres to 7,222 acres under Chicago's runway-expansion plan, which depends on taking 433 acres from surrounding communities.
Denver International Airport is situated on 34,000 acres. Kansas City International Airport takes up more than 10,000 acres, with at least 7,000 additional acres available to develop. The proposed south suburban airport near Peotone in Will County would sprawl over almost 20,000 acres.
But Chicago officials point to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where four parallel runways are squeezed onto fewer than 5,000 acres, as another model for the future O'Hare.
"Size isn't everything," Andolino said. "Atlanta is smaller than O'Hare, and it will handle more flights and more passengers than O'Hare this year."
But Hartsfield is far from a top performer in the category that matters most to passengers--arriving on time. Of the nation's 33 largest airports, Atlanta ranked 28th for on-time arrivals from January through September this year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Even O'Hare, with its crisscrossing runways, did better, finishing 25th.
DFW ranked sixth with 81 percent of flights arriving on time.
"I don't think Boeing builds enough airplanes to create a capacity crunch at DFW," said JoEllen Casilio, FAA air-traffic control district manager for airports in the Dallas region.
More than a mile separates many of Dallas' runways, allowing simultaneous landings and takeoffs even in intense fog.
But at the expanded O'Hare, the runway separation will be so tight that flights will have to be staggered under some conditions, diminishing efficiency.
Two pairs of runways nearest to the passenger terminal complex would be only 1,200 feet apart. Air-traffic controllers must treat parallel runways that are less than 2,500 feet apart as a single runway, meaning takeoffs and landings cannot be conducted simultaneously.
Controllers in O'Hare's air-traffic tower are concerned about accidents occurring if a plane landing were to stray or be pushed by strong winds from its designated approach path. Turbulence from large planes taking off on the adjacent runway could also spell trouble.
The perimeter taxiways planned at DFW will produce a 30 percent gain in flight capacity, according to real-life simulations conducted with NASA, airline pilots and air-traffic controllers.
"It's the gift that keeps on giving. The pilots love the simplified movement of aircraft on the airfield, and the controllers especially love it," said Jim Crites, executive vice president of operations at DFW.
He said the perimeter taxiway plan will cost $280 million for the entire airport--a bargain in the world of airport capital improvements. The project will be done in phases, with construction starting next year or 2007.
"I've never heard of anything like that," said Crites, a former American Airlines executive who grew up in Glenview. "Think of that in terms of Chicago. It is going to cost well over $1 billion to build each of the new runways at O'Hare, and they aren't going to see the 30 percent capacity gain we're getting here. This is what comes from simplifying your life in air traffic."