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Three Illinois U.S. reps ask FAA for new hearings on O’Hare flight paths

A jet lands Thursday new runway 10C-28C thwas commissioned  O'Hare International Airport . | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

A jet lands Thursday on the new runway, 10C-28C, that was commissioned at O'Hare International Airport . | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 21, 2014 3:56PM



Tree Illinois members of Congress on Thursday asked the head of the Federal Aviation Administration to hold new public hearings on a switch in O’Hare International Airport’s flight paths that has “flooded” their constituents with “unexpected noise.”

In a letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, the elected officials cited the “inaccuracy and incompleteness” of information at legally required 2005 public hearings, which the Chicago Sun-Times chronicled exclusively on Thursday.

The FAA’s hearings on an $8 billion O’Hare overhaul “ran contrary to their required purpose,’’ according to the letter, signed by three Democratic U.S. representatives: Mike Quigley, Tammy Duckworth and Jan Schakowsky.

“Constituents were never informed in any meaningful way how many additional flights, and how much more noise, they would be asked to endure,’’ the officials contend. The way the FAA conducted the hearings “calls into question the integrity” of its process, they said.

The representatives urged the FAA to produce a new environmental impact study and to work with the city and airlines on immediate jet noise relief solutions.

Also Thursday, the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition sent a letter to U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., calling for immediate Senate hearings into how the FAA conducted its 2005 public hearings and shared information with the public at that time. “Nothing short of a Senate inquiry is warranted,’’ FAIR leader Jac Charlier said.

All this followed a Sun-Times report Thursday that the FAA released inaccurate data about the now-contentious issue of the percentage of traffic each runway would carry, then quietly corrected 72 percent of its figures online months after public hearings ended. The corrections were contained in what, by then, was more than 7.5 million Web pages of online FAA information about the plan.

The FAA did not display to hearing visitors the number of flights it expected each runway to bear by the completion of the O’Hare overhaul, even though it had the data to do so at the time, the Sun-Times found. The map about noise impacts that the FAA did display at hearings was described by critics as “misleading.’’

And the Sun-Times reported last week that the only legally required FAA public hearings on the environmental impact of the overhaul were not held in areas due for the worst noise levels, which the representatives noted in their letter. Hearing turnout was “very light,” with those attending favoring the plan by as much as a 4-to-1 ratio, the FAA reported.

Although the hearings were held in 2005, and ultimately led to FAA approval of the city’s proposal, the effects didn’t hit until last Oct. 17. That’s when the city completed its first phase of the overhaul and switched from using mostly diagonal runways to mostly parallel ones.

The big switch brought far more flights over areas of the city and suburbs directly east and west of O’Hare. It has triggered record O’Hare noise complaints, many from residents who have said they were blindsided by the blitz of planes over their homes.

Two more parallel runways and a runway extension are due by 2020, although funding for some of that work is up in the air. And, as the representatives’ congressional letter noted, the city has rolled out “significant changes” to the original plan since 2005.

“Since October 2013, our offices have received countless complaints on the impact the new runway and attending flight pattern changes at O’Hare have had on every day life,’’ the letter the representatives’ letter said. “The O’Hare Modernization Program has disturbed many of our constituents’ daily lives, negatively impacting their schedules, leisure activities and even home values in areas overwhelmed with noise pollution.’’

Quigley, Duckworth and Schakowsky are calling on the FAA to conduct a new environmental assessment of the project, to hold new public hearings and to provide a “full explanation” of the FAA’s previous efforts to contact affected areas before it approved the project.

In addition, they urged the FAA to expedite its analysis of what level of noise should trigger free sound insulation. That subject has been under analysis for five years but remains “not near completion,” the letter said.

They asked the FAA, the city and the airlines to “devise a course of action that will bring relief to our residents,” whether it involves airspace changes, keeping both diagonal and parallel runways open indefinitely, or asking airlines to make some accommodations.

“We need to start work now,’’ the letter urged. “Our constituents should not have to wait until the airport expansion is completed in 2020 to decide if they can endure the increase in noise pollution. We want your guarantee to explore whatever practicable changes are necessary to protect our neighborhoods, while keeping O’Hare safe and efficient.’’

FAIR called for a halt to plans for future runways and a suspension of changes that have occurred since Oct. 17. It urged the FAA to create a “neighborhood-based” runway usage pattern, with the FAIR coalition “in a lead role.’’

It accused the FAA of “ongoing outright dismissal and exclusion” of thousands of residents.

Three hours after the Sun-Times asked for comment, FAA Chicago-based spokesman Tony Molinaro referred all questions to the FAA’s Washington office, which by then had closed for the day.

A request for City Council O'Hare noise hearings — embodied in a January resolution by Ald. Mary O'Connor (41st) and Ald. Marge Laurino (39th) — has yet to produce any hearings.

However, mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said Thursday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office has been working with both aldermen as well as Quigley on "an agenda for a committee hearing that adds substantive value and advances the conversation." He provided no timeline of when it might occur.

Contributing: Art Golab and Fran Spielman


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