Inside Chicago’s $8.5 billion O’Hare Airport redesign | Chicago News

Inside Chicago’s $8.5 billion O’Hare Airport renovation. (Chicago Department of Aviation)

(CNN) – The city of Chicago has long had one of the busiest airport systems in the world.

Before the jet age and until the late 1950s, Chicago Midway Airport, southwest of the city, was the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic.

Its runways, however, were too short for early jet aircraft, and within just a few years all flights migrated to O’Hare in the northwest, which had longer runways and terminals newly built.

The move helped O’Hare become the world’s busiest airport in 1962, a title it held for more than 25 years. The high passenger volume, however, came at a cost: the airport became notoriously crowded.

Penalized by the city’s unpredictable weather, the runway configuration that attracted jet planes did not stand the test of time.

By the time O’Hare lost the crown of the world’s busiest airport for good – to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson in 1998 – it was notoriously overcrowded and falling in most performance rankings, often ranking low for customer satisfaction.

The only way forward was a radical modernization of the runway system, which began in 2005 and cost $6 billion. Work was completed in 2021, dramatically reducing delays and paving the way for a complete overhaul of the rest of the airport – with an additional investment of $8.5 billion – that will transform it “from curb to gate”, says the city (and maybe bump up those rankings).

Eight tracks

Today, O’Hare has eight tracks – six parallel to each other and two diagonal. Previously, there were three pairs of parallel runways that crossed each other, a configuration that increased the risk of aircraft collision and was susceptible to weather disruption.

“We now have the most capable runway network of any civilian airport in the world,” said Robert Hoxie, director of development at the Chicago Department of Aviation. “We’ve reduced delays by 65%, which is tens of thousands of flights that are now running on time but previously weren’t.”

It was a long process, but by 2015 things had improved enough that the focus was on the terminals. American Airlines and United, both of which have hubs in O’Hare, approached the city to discuss major upgrades.

“The original passenger terminals were built in the mid-1950s,” Hoxie explains, “they’re now over 60 years old and they just don’t have the amenities that passengers want, or the efficiency that airlines want. airlines need to operate a good connection hub.

In 2019, the idea morphed into O’Hare 21, a radical plan to revamp the airport and make it ready for the 21st century.

The big ticket items are an all-new “global” terminal, two new satellite concourses for Terminal 1 and a complete overhaul of the existing Terminal 5 – but the plan includes nearly 100 separate projects, many of which are smaller but functional upgrades, such as upgrades to parking garages, new water pipes and electrical distribution systems, and refurbishment of underground pedestrian tunnels.

The lion’s share of investment will go to modernizing the terminals, which will transform the passenger experience at O’Hare.

It’s a long-term plan – the work won’t be finished until 2028 at the earliest – but like the runway upgrade, it will be delivered gradually, improving the airport piece by piece. Some areas of the new Terminal 5, currently being renovated, are already open to the public.

A symbol of Chicago

“We are spending over $1 billion to revamp Terminal 5, increasing its capacity but also upgrading its systems,” Hoxie said. The terminal will no longer be focused on international flights but on carriers that simply fly passengers to and from Chicago, including low-cost carriers like Spirit. Delta will also be moving here later in the fall.

Improvements include 10 new gates, a new baggage handling system and new security checkpoints.

Work began in March 2020, as the world went into lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak: “The pandemic has been universally unnecessary for our business, but having a less cluttered terminal has allowed us to work more efficiently and faster than we thought”. I would be able to,” Hoxie says.

An even larger investment, $2.2 billion, will go into a brand new terminal dedicated to international traffic, which will rise above the soon to be demolished Terminal 2 – the oldest facility still in use today.

Currently, O’Hare has a single international terminal separate from the domestic terminal, so passengers on connecting flights must change terminals.

“In the new Terminal 2, called O’Hare Global Terminal, passengers will be able to clear US customs, return to the secure area and be just minutes from their departure gate – without needing to take a train to another terminal. or towing bags across the airfield,” says Hoxie.

The design of the new building is the result of a competition won by Chicago’s Studio ORD and is inspired by a city icon, the Municipal Device. It’s a circled Y symbol that represents the north and south branches of the Chicago River coming together and can be found throughout the city on buildings, fences, lamp posts, and bridges.

Similarly, the new terminal building will be Y-shaped, with a six-pointed glass skylight positioned where the branches meet. The roof will be clad in wood, with angled folds to maximize natural daylight.

At 2.2 million square feet, the Global Terminal will be 75% larger than the existing Terminal 2 and one of the largest in the United States. This will make room for a number of amenities, including nursing rooms, yoga studios, and a variety of food. and choice of drinks.

It also aims to be more efficient for airlines, with a new baggage handling system that offers automated storage for 5,000 bags and more flexible gates – able to handle jumbo jets and then quickly reconfigure for passengers. smaller.

Previously, the lack of such flexibility meant that over the years O’Hare’s original 189 gates had been reduced to 184 as the average aircraft wingspan increased in order to save fuel.

Upon completion of the entire project, gate capacity will increase by 25% and the total passenger terminal area will increase from around 5,000,000 square meters today to just under 9,000,000 square meters. .

However, work on the new global terminal, as well as the two new satellite halls, will not begin for several years: a multitude of regulatory and environmental assessments must first be approved, then replacement aircraft doors must built before those currently in service at Terminal 2 may be decommissioned and demolished.

In the meantime, work will continue on the renovation of Terminal 5, which will be completed at the end of 2023.

All the while it will never close, passengers and construction living side by side: “I think the best analogy is if you’ve ever done a renovation project on your house – you know that at some point, if you’re renovating your kitchen, you’re going to end up washing your plate in your bathroom sink,” Hoxie says. “It’s a tough build. It’s very tough.

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