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New runway, new noise worries at O’Hare

Charting O'Hare's noise
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Updated: November 14, 2013 6:25AM

From his screened-in porch on the city’s Northwest Side, 7.5 miles east of O’Hare International Airport, Don Walsh can’t help but comment on the eight planes that rumble overhead within a mere eight minutes.

“This one is huge. It’s an Airbus,’’ says Walsh, 58, a retired city deputy fire commissioner.

“Here comes the next one — imagine having a barbecue with this.” And again. “This is one where you have to stop talking.’’

With plane noise and frequency already reaching what Walsh calls “obnoxious” levels, like many city residents east of O’Hare, he is bracing for Thursday.

That’s when a new runway opens at O’Hare, creating more arrivals on another runway whose traffic already irritates some residents of the 39th, 41st and 45th wards on the Northwest Side. Average annual arrivals on that runway, 27L, will jump more than 50 percent by day and nearly fourfold at night, an analysis of city data predictions indicate.

Worse yet to Walsh, during about 70 percent of the year all night arrivals will roll into O’Hare on 27L, city officials recently conceded. Meanwhile, the new runway will largely sit unused at night, city data predictions indicate.

“That’s insane. That’s absolutely insane,’’ said Walsh, of the Indian Woods community in the 39th Ward. “Why aren’t they equally breaking up the runways?”

On Thursday, runway 10C/28C debuts as part of the massive O’Hare Modernization Program, which is an effort to wind down use of crisscrossing runways in favor of new, parallel ones. The move should decrease O’Hare delays and increase capacity because planes will no longer face interference from intersecting runway traffic, city officials say.

In this dramatic shift, 70 percent of O’Hare planes will fly from east to west on those parallel runways.

Environmental impact maps predict 15,991 people will be newly exposed to a “significant” level of plane noise, normally disruptive enough to qualify for sound insulation. That includes new portions of the 41st Ward’s Norwood Park; slivers of the 36th and 45th wards; and parts of Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Wood Dale, Itasca and Bensenville.

Getting relief from the same noise level should be 12,254 others, including sections of Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, Bensenville, North Lake, Franklin Park, Rosemont, Norridge and Harwood Heights.

After the winners and losers shake out, 3,737 additional city and suburban dwellers will be hit with “significant” plane noise, although the affected land area will shrink with the runway switch, environmental impact maps indicate.

City officials note that almost all recent city O’Hare noise complaints have come from the 41st Ward, where some homes have received subsidized soundproofing. Only a handful hail from the further east 39th and 45th wards, which don’t qualify, they say.

Walsh, a member of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, lives outside the area predicted for significant noise. He says the level he lives with now is annoying to him and many other Northwest Siders. By Thursday, he’s predicting it will be worse.

“They [officials] can talk all the numbers they want,” Walsh said. “We are here. We live it.’’

For years, suburbanites who don’t vote in the city have tackled airport noise from O’Hare, but the issue threatens to spread to more city residents who do vote in Chicago.

The new, $1.28 billion 10C/28C runway will be used largely for day arrivals. It is one of three parallel runways absorbing just under a quarter of all daytime landings averaged annually, city predictions indicate. That move alone will increase day arrivals on 27L to 327 from 213, or by 53.5 percent on average annually, a Sun-Times analysis of city predictions shows.

At night, when O’Hare usually consolidates arrivals and departures onto one runway each, all planes will land on 27L about 70 percent of the year, city officials told the Chicago Sun-Times.

During that time, 27L — the closest runway to airport terminals — will absorb, on average, slightly more than 100 flights over nine hours, city data predictions indicate. The bulk will land from 10 p.m. to midnight and from 5 to 7 a.m., city aviation department documents indicate.

“In west flow, which is expected to occur about 70 percent of the time during the year, Runway 27L would most likely be getting all nighttime arrivals,’’ Greg Cunningham, a city Department of Aviation spokesman, told the Chicago Sun-Times in an email.

“I’m stunned. It’s the worst nightmare I could ever think of,’’ said Walsh. Cargo planes between 5:20 and 6 a.m. already wake him regularly.

“Our houses are rumbling, they are literally shaking now at night,’’ Walsh said. “They need to equally distribute traffic when a runway goes in.’’

Cunningham noted that the Kennedy Expy. and I-294 interchange are “directly under the flight path” of 27L, so using it is in line with the “Fly Quiet” program that encourages flights over less-populated areas, including highways.

“Spreading air traffic around the airport by utilizing multiple runways would impact more residents,’’ Cunningham said.

Jac Charlier, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, said he has been expecting increased air traffic during the day and especially at night in at least three Northwest Side wards, but no public data so far has explicitly stated that runway 27L would absorb all night arrivals 70 percent of the year.

In the last month, the coalition has left door hangers at 8,000 homes, mostly in the three Northwest Side wards, saying “kiss your property values goodbye” and that “you can hear the planes, but you were not heard’’ before decisions were made on O’Hare runway use.

The new information is “gonna fire people up,’’ Charlier said. “This is a game changer.’’

U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Jan Schakowsky (both D-Ill.) last week wrote city aviation officials, saying “changes must be explored” to planned flight patterns.

Quigley told the Sun-Times he recognizes O’Hare as an economic engine whose east-to-west routes will “dramatically improve the flow of air traffic across the country’’ and save millions in reduced delays and cancellations.

However, Quigley said, he has asked the City Aviation Department to “re-evaluate” and “try to use as many runways as possible at all times, including nights. I’m trying to spread the burden out as much as possible.’’

In addition, the lawmakers have asked the Federal Aviation Administration to re-evaluate the level of noise that qualifies homes for sound insulation.

“I think they should reduce it significantly,’’ Quigley said. “It was an arbitrary figure.’’

“We appreciate the role the new runway plays in safe and efficient flight operations,’’ Quigley and Schakowsky wrote. But “we don’t believe that vibrant neighborhoods and stable property values should be sacrificed solely in the name of airport efficiency and economic growth.’’

Charlier and others say they can’t understand why some city neighborhoods will be forced to shoulder the bulk of night-time O’Hare traffic and why daytime traffic can’t be split equally among all four existing parallel runways instead of mostly three.

Lisa Ziems, who helped the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition distribute door hangers, said she and her husband bought their home in the Hollywood-North Park area seven years ago to enjoy the quiet of the North Park Village Nature Center across the street. Now she can’t walk through it without planes overhead.

Currently, she said, her family sleeps with the windows closed, the air conditioning on and a sound machine running to keep out flight noise. But other neighbors sleep with windows open and hear flight noise, she said.

“It’s not fair that one community bears the biggest brunt,’’ Ziems said.

Ald. Mary O’Connor (41st) said she inherited the O’Hare Modernization deal, and “stopping a multi-billion dollar plan at the zero hour is not realistic.’’ However, she said she will continue to seek noise monitors and sound insulation “and any other resource that will help limit the impact.’’

With O’Hare located in the 41st Ward, residents “are used to having planes fly over their heads” and “our property values continue to be some of the strongest in the city ,’’ O’Connor said.

The good news on the Northwest Side, said Ald. John Arena (45th), is that by the time the Modernization Program fully expands to include a total of four parallel runways and two runway extensions, day arrivals on 27L should shrink to near nothing, so residents in his ward can eventually enjoy a peaceful outdoor barbecue or a glass of wine on their patios.

As a result, Arena said, FAiR’s door hangers warning of plummeting property values amount to “screaming fire in a theater.’’ However, Arena conceded, he had not been told that all night arrivals would enter through 27L roughly 70 percent of the year.

Arena, a member of the city aviation committee and the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, said city aviation officials told him using 27L allowed them to shut down a control tower at night and efficiently concentrate arrivals on the closest runway to terminals.

“Let’s see what the real numbers are,’’ Arena said. “What are the costs of having two [arrival] runways at night and splitting it up a bit?’

However, Walsh noted that completion isn’t due until 2020, and funding for the next runway is still uncertain. “Why would you spend millions on O’Hare and build a runway that you can’t open [at night] because the tower is not open?’’ Walsh said.

He hears “double the noise’’ he encountered when he bought his home 22 years ago and expects things to only get worse. “If I wanted to buy a home by the airport for half of my property value, I would have done that,’’ Walsh said. “But I bought a house 7.5 miles from the airport, and now I might as well live next door to the airport.”


Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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