Daley, airlines struggle to reach compromise on expanding O'Hare

February 4, 2011

(Flickr/Duane Rapp)

The blizzard that rocked the Midwest this week brought most air travel to a standstill at some of the country’s busiest airports. Particularly in Chicago, where the city has been trying to lock in funding for a major expansion of O’Hare International Airport. But the project has run into some problems at the earliest of stages.

For years, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has been pushing for an expansion of O’Hare Airport: $6.6 billion dollars worth of expansion. With that whopping pricetag, Daley’s looking for some financial help from the two biggest airlines at O’Hare: United and American.

The CEOs of those two airlines were supposed to meet with Daley behind closed doors Thursday, but that meeting was canceled. The airlines blamed the blizzard.

In true Daley fashion, he told reporters he thinks they’re avoiding him.

"They said, “No.” Monday, they said, “No.” Then Tuesday they said, “No.” And Wednesday they said, “No.” Then Tuesday they said, “No.” And Wednesday they said, “No,” Daley said. 

Daley said after all those negotiations just to set up a meeting, they finally settled on a date.

"I made another exception. The only time I’ve ever made an exception in 22 years," Daley said. "I said, “How about that Sunday?” And they said, “No.” I said, “How about Monday?” They said “No.” Then they’re doing it I think Tuesday – we think so."

If you’ve lost track, that Tuesday is later in the month. It’s one week before Chicago’s election day. That is the first election day in 22 years that won’t have Richard M. Daley’s name on the ballot. So the airlines will be negotiating with a lame duck.

Daley’s rant comes as the issue between the city and the airlines has reached a new boiling point. He says a modernized O’Hare would secure the city’s future as a transportation icon.

As it is, United and American account for 80 percent of daily flights at O’Hare. More than 1,000 flights a day just between the two of them. For their part, the airlines haven’t said much publicly. At least, not since they sued the city to stop the expansion project a few weeks ago. From their perspective, there isn’t enough air traffic at this time to demand an O’Hare expansion. Plus, they say O’Hare is already one of the costliest airports in the country and making it bigger would just make it more expensive.

"Everybody knows that we can’t go back to the bad old days of the late ‘90s where O’Hare was just being avoided by travelers," said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University. "Airlines were facing tens of millions of dollars in costs because of congestion."

Schwieterman said having only United and American involved in discussions gives them a competitive advantage. Other airlines like Southwest don’t even look at O’Hare, but stay focused on Midway Airport. Schwieterman said negotiations between the two sides are dicey

"These are big companies, big organizations and some big egos involved," he said. 

But there are at least two people who think they can manage those egos: Illinois’ two U.S. senators.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said time is of the essence.

"I think some of them would wait until the delays are just intolerable and then say, ‘Now lets build.’ You’ve got to be ahead of the curve. As you’re increasing the planes there, you have to have the infrastructure to support it," Durbin said.

Meantime, if the senators can’t get the two sides to even meet face-to-face until a week before election day, that may be telling us something: that this fight over O’Hare’s future will fall to Chicago’s next mayor.