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Deputy Mayor: O’Hare Upgrades Will Keep Chicago Competitive

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport could nearly double in size under a proposal to expand and renovate the more than 60-year-old travel hub.

The $8.5 billion plan would take about a decade to complete and would build on the ongoing O’Hare modernization project that has been underway since 2001.

Deputy Mayor Bob Rivkin joined WBEZ host Melba Lara to discuss the details of the proposal.

The update would keep Chicago a competitive global city

Bob Rivkin: O’Hare is the economic engine of Chicago. And this is the mayor not only thinking big, but acting big, to assure our place in the global competitiveness of megacities for the decades to come.

We’re competing globally. We want the international connectivity that feeds our very diversified global economy, and we’ve been artificially constrained in that because our gates haven’t grown for years.

Improving the customer experience is a priority

Rivkin: Operationally, we can handle the volume of flights, but we can’t handle the passengers of the aircraft or the moving around of the bags. So this will really put us in a neighborhood where we can be connected to the world in a much more direct and efficient way.

The basic idea here is to take advantage of the massive amount of real estate at O’Hare that was previously conflicted based on the runway configurations. So, to put it simply, we’re now opening the center of the airfield and we can build more terminal and gate capacity to allow for more flights, more connectivity, and a more modern passenger experience.

The airport will work at full capacity during the 8-year project

Rivkin: The project has been very carefully planned to minimize disruption. It will take about eight years, but O’Hare will be operating at capacity the entire time. The first thing that will happen is that Terminal 5 will be extended and expanded to allow non-hub airlines to move as soon as possible over to those gates. Then, as the project proceeds, airlines will have to temporarily inhabit gate spaces that will eventually be torn down in favor of the brand new concourses that will be erected.

O’Hare’s revenue will pay for all of the renovations

Rivkin: As is the practice with U.S. airports, costs of airport construction are paid for through the landing and lease fees that airlines pay as tenants. This airport is Chicago’s greatest and most valuable asset, and we’re entitled to charge fair rents, essentially, for those who want to use it. So this will entirely be paid for with what are called airport revenues that are derived from the operation of the airport. There are no other taxpayer funds or city funds involved.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire segment.

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