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Chicago, Airlines Battle Over O'Hare Expansion

Passengers wait in line at the United ticket counter at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Frank Polich
Getty Images
Passengers wait in line at the United ticket counter at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

For years, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has been pushing for a $6.6 billion expansion of O'Hare International Airport.

The expansion has started. But Phase 2 of the project has run into some unusual problems. And with that whopping price tag, Daley's looking for some financial help from the two biggest airlines at O'Hare — American and United.

Their CEOs were supposed to meet with Daley behind closed doors on Thursday. But that meeting was canceled.


The airlines blamed the blizzard that rocked the Midwest this week and brought air travel to a standstill at some of the country's busiest airports, including O'Hare.

In true Daley fashion, he told reporters he thinks the companies are avoiding him. "They said, 'No.' Monday, they said 'No,' " he says. "Then, Tuesday they said, 'No.' And Wednesday they said, 'No.' "

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

Negotiating With A Lame Duck


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.

United and American account for more than 1,000 daily flights — 80 percent of the daily traffic — at O'Hare.

The airlines haven't said much publicly since they sued the city to stop the project a few weeks ago. The airlines say there isn't enough air traffic at this time to demand an expansion.

Concern Over Rising Costs

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 1990s where O'Hare was just being avoided by travelers," says Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University. "Airlines were facing tens of millions of dollars in costs because of congestion."

Schwieterman says having only United and American involved in discussions gives them a competitive advantage. Other airlines like Southwest are avoiding O'Hare and remain focused on Chicago's smaller Midway Airport.

Negotiations between the two sides remain dicey, he says: "These are big companies, big organizations and some big egos involved."

An American Airlines jet taxis after landing at O'Hare.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
An American Airlines jet taxis after landing at O'Hare.

Bring In The Senators

But there are at least two people — Illinois' two U.S. senators — who think they can manage those egos. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, says time is of the essence.

"I think some of them would wait until the delays are just intolerable and then say, 'Now, let's build,' " he says. "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."

But if the senators can't get the two sides to hold a meeting until a week before election day, then the fight over O'Hare's future will fall to Chicago's next mayor.

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