CHICAGO — These are turbulent times for airlines, as the spate of industry mergers shows, but for Chicago's mighty O'Hare International Airport, some recent clouds have cleared and a smooth ride seems assured to a high-flying future.
The airport, already the world's busiest, is undergoing a massive modernization and expansion aimed at guaranteeing its supremacy as the global leader in civilian flight operations for decades to come.
The $1.6 billion, 13-year program will nearly double the airport's passenger-handling capacity, add a major new terminal, expand cargo- and baggage-handling facilities, and ease highway traffic congestion, which some days threatens mortal gridlock along the arteries linking O'Hare to America's heartland.
At the same time, the program does not call for adding any new runways to the complex. Such a move would trigger sharp opposition from neighboring suburbs in the city's northwest, where complaints about airport noise and pollution already are high.
To combat the airport's congestion and pollution, one of the plan's major features is a 3.5-mile-long "people mover," an elevated, computer-run rail system linking the terminals with outlying parking lots and rental car agencies. Designed and mostly built by a French firm, the $138 million airport railroad is intended to shuttle up to 6,000 passengers an hour around the O'Hare complex when it is completed in about six years.
In all, the airport rebuilding effort encompasses no fewer than 100 separate major projects. It is billed as the largest public works project in Chicago history -- no mean boast for the brash prairie metropolis that rebuilt itself after burning to the ground in 1871.
Begun in 1982, the O'Hare development program has endured its share of political bickering over financing and rising costs. For the most part, these tensions reflected historic strains between the city and the rest of Illinois which crop up in every session of the state legislature like hardy prairie grass.
Recently, the maneuvering has intensified as the white ethnic politicians who inherited the remnants of the old Democratic organization of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley try to impede the steadily strengthening power over patronage exercised by Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor. But Washington has so far brushed aside his opponents and seems increasingly in control.
As if underscoring this, Washington and the chief executives of the airport's biggest tenants, United Airlines and American Airlines, last week signed an unusual three-way agreement that nails down final financing for the people mover. At a news conference, Washington hailed the pact, which will cost the two airlines an extra $25 million total as their share of the bill, calling it a "centerpiece" of the entire airport development program.
For all the chest-thumping and self-congratulations, the O'Hare reconstruction should mean good news for harried air travelers.
Opened in 1955, O'Hare was designed to handle 25 million passengers a year. They traveled in piston-engine DC-6s and the first jets, the Boeing 707 and DC-8.
The advent of wide-bodied jets and energetic fare-cutting spurred air travel to phenomenal growth. Last year, O'Hare handled 50 million passengers. From early morning to 10 o'clock at night, the terrazzo concourses of O'Hare's three main terminals were thronged with travelers racing for connections or cabs. Delay, distress, dismay seemed as much part of the airport as its hot dogs. The place was busting at the seams.
Expansion will raise O'Hare's passenger-handling capacity to 80 million annually by 1992, moving it far ahead of its current nearest competitor, Atlanta, which clocked nearly 43 million passengers through its gates in 1985.
According to official air travel figures, O'Hare's other major competitors rang up these totals for 1985:
Los Angeles, 37.6 million; Dallas-Fort Worth, 37.1 million; Heathrow (London), 31.2 million; John F. Kennedy (New York), 28.9 million; Newark (N.J.) 28.5 million; Denver, 28.5 million; and Haneda (Tokyo), 27.1 million.
Amid all this competition for patronage and airlines, O'Hare has unique strengths that derive from its location and its history. Situated at what for 150 years has been the major midcontinental transshipment point, with about 40% of the nation's 230 million citizens living within 500 miles, O'Hare attracts tens of thousands of short-haul regional travelers every month.
Unlike New York or Los Angeles, which must rely heavily on international traffic, O'Hare is a major connecting point for transcontinental routes as well. And, because it fits so well with the 1980s hub-and-spoke strategy of the airlines, O'Hare brings regional and intercontinental routes together in a way unmatched by other airports.
"You can get anywhere from anywhere via O'Hare," said one globe-trotting American the other day of his favorite airport. "I love it."