New O’Hare runway sends noise complaints soaring, doesn’t reduce delays
By ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter January 26, 2014 10:08PM
10/17/2013 Chicago Nora Shea of Chicago, protests the opening of a new runway at Chicago's O'Hare International airport with other members of the FAiR Coalition at the intersection of Irving Park Road and Taft Avenue near the airport on Thursday, October 17, 2013. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 28, 2014 6:22AM
Last fall’s opening of a new runway at O’Hare International Airport is already kicking up turbulence.
Noise complaints have skyrocketed more than 500 percent in the first full month since runway 10C-28C opened Oct. 17, heralding a massive shift in flight patterns.
And although the switch to mostly parallel runways from mostly intersecting ones was supposed to reduce delays in all kinds of weather, that’s not how the first full month of on-time performance numbers shook out.
O’Hare’s November on-time arrival and departure rates dipped last year compared to November 2012. Monthly commercial flight cancellations jumped, too — by 56 percent.
The huge spike in city noise complaints has prompted aldermen from two affected wards on the Northwest Side — the 41st and 39th — to request a City Council Aviation Committee hearing on O’Hare noise relief. The alderman of the 45th Ward, also hit with newfound plane noise, supports that effort.
The massive change in the way O’Hare is using its runway — so that most traffic now arrives from the east and departs to the west — apparently has sent residents who never experienced heavy flight noise before running to the phones to register their beefs.
So, while the overall number of people complaining across the region hasn’t changed that much, those who are calling appear to be airing their grievances more often, apparently spurred on by some aldermen, suburban officials and an advocacy group, the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition.
Where the complaints are coming from has shifted, too.
The city has seen sharp increases in the number of people complaining, while the suburban region, as a whole, has seen a decrease. In the city alone, monthly complaints jumped 787 percent, and the number of people griping rose 473 percent between November of 2012 and November of 2013. Bucking the suburban trend, Norridge and Wood Dale also saw especially large increases in calls to the O’Hare noise hotline — (800) 435-9569.
As for the increased flight delays, Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Gregg Cunningham said “weather was a big influence,” but it’s “far too soon to draw conclusions” from one month of data.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the House Subcommittee on Transportation, agreed that the flight sample size was too small to be definitive. He said the one-month increase “raises eyebrows” given the high expectations for the airport project but he presumes delays will eventually subside.
However, Quigley said he is worried that far more neighborhoods than those projected to qualify for sound insulation are being hit with onerous noise levels. During spring and summer, when windows are thrown open, complaints probably will jump even more, he said.
Cunningham said the city has been a “national leader” in sound insulation, having already insulated 4,000 homes around O’Hare, including those projected to be impacted by the latest runway. Some 2,000 more are due for insulation by 2020, when the $6.6 billion O’Hare Modernization Program is scheduled to be completed with the installation of two more parallel runways.
However, under current rules, homeowners not living in areas projected to be hit with heavy noise won’t even be eligible to be considered for insulation relief until after all additional runways open in six years and a new noise analysis is performed.
At a minimum, all of the 45th and 39th wards fall outside the area currently eligible for soundproofing, even though 88 people from those wards called the hotline in November to beef, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis indicated.
Quigley and others are pushing to change the soundproofing eligibility formula to make more homes eligible for help sooner.
“I think the noise is a lot louder than people thought it would be, much farther out,’’ Quigley said. “Many more people are being affected.’’
The mayor of Norridge, where noise complaints jumped from 11 to 985, also isn’t waiting for 2020. He is sending all homeowners a petition in their February water bills asking that new O’Hare landing options be considered and that sound insulation eligibility be expanded.
During a summer briefing on flight pattern changes the new runway would bring, Norridge Mayor Jim Chmura said, Chicago officials sold Norridge residents “a bill of goods.’’
“We heard all the good things. ‘It wouldn’t affect the village of Norridge. The planes would have engines with less noise. Money would be available down the line for insulation,’ ’’ Chmura said.
“None of that is true at this point.’’
Before he bought his house 20 years ago, Chmura said, he actually sat in front of it for a few days, several hours at a time, to check for airplane noise. It wasn’t a problem. But now, Chmura said, for him and others in Norridge, it suddenly is.
“We’re fighting City Hall here. And I mean City Hall,’’ Chmura said.
The new east-to-west flow means that 70 percent of the year, one runway in particular — 27L — is expected to absorb 100 percent of all night arrivals, city aviation officials have said. Spread out over the entire month of November, 27L night arrival averages nearly tripled between 2012 and 2013, city aviation data shows. Perhaps that’s why calls about nighttime noise more than tripled during that time.
Quigley said he’d like to see O’Hare spread out its runway usage more evenly, particularly at night, so some neighborhoods aren’t saturated. He noted that the O’Hare Modernization Plan was supposed to save airlines $370 million in efficiencies and passengers $380 million.
“If there’s so much savings, we should bring some of those dollars back to the community and open more runways at night,’’ Quigley said. “All of that financial gain should not be borne by a few residents.’’
However, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino so far has nixed that idea. In a Jan. 8 letter to Quigley, Andolino said altering the flight path of Runway 27L night arrivals would “displace noise impacts from one neighborhood to another.’’
The path into 27L takes planes over I-190, I-90 and forest preserves, Andolino wrote, making it “a good example of land use compatible with airport development.’’