One of the largest airport modernization projects ever undertaken, the O'Hare Modernization Program (OMP) couldn't happen soon enough. O'Hare is the country's second busiest airport and provides connections to more cities than any other airport in the world. Once our nation's flagship aviation center, O'Hare now has the distinction of being our nation's most delayed hub; delays at O'Hare impact the entire nation, and the world. According to Christopher Arman, deputy director of OMP, owner and contracting body for all new construction, O'Hare is designed to accommodate three simultaneous landings. But inclement weather reduces capacity by a third when only the two runways can be used.

Credit: Joe Nasvik

Built for another time

O'Hare field, now O'Hare International Airport, was built in the 1950s as a military airport manufacturing facility for Douglas aircraft. The runway configuration—featuring three runways coming together like a triangle—was designed for propeller driven aircraft that were sensitive to wind direction. Intersecting runways made it possible to take off and land with the wind coming from any direction (see Figure 1 and Figure 2 ). But with the advent of jets, wind direction mattered less, and the original runway configuration gradually became cumbersome as air traffic increased. In addition, the last runway was constructed 37 years ago, which meant that O'Hare desperately needed renovations.

The approximate $8 billion modernization program will be complete in 2014, restoring O'Hare's reputation as North America's leading airport. When the modernization program is finished, the airport will feature a total of eight runways—six running parallel and oriented in an east-west direction (the prevailing wind direction)—and two running diagonally. Three of the six runways will be at the north end of the airport, and three to the south. Only one diagonal runway—from the original construction—intersects with other runways and it will be used less than 1% of the time, when weather conditions permit.

Workers cast 17-in.-thick taxiways as part of a 3000-ft. runway extension for the O'Hare Modernization Program.

Workers cast 17-in.-thick taxiways as part of a 3000-ft. runway extension for the O'Hare Modernization Program.

Credit: Joe Nasvik

The new configuration will allow the airlines to save as much as $400 million per year in reduced fuel costs based on today's prices due to less idling on the ground and circling in the air. The longest runway spans 13,000 feet and the shortest one 7500 feet. Also included in the modernization are two additional control towers that provide line-of-sight access to all runways, and on the west side of the airport, a new terminal with freeway access and an underground tram connection to existing terminals.

With the addition of a third runway with all-weather capability in November and the 3000-foot extension to another runway this past September, O'Hare will gain all-weather access to three runways.

Enabling projects

The process of doing runway work is relatively easy, says Arman. “It's the enabling projects which must precede runway construction that cause incredible complications.” These included:

Figure 1 shows the existing configuration at O'Hare International Airport.

Figure 1 shows the existing configuration at O'Hare International Airport.

Credit: O'Hare Modernization Program

  • Purchasing 433 acres from surrounding communities (some property owners didn't want to sell), including the purchase of a cemetery that required removal because it would be located under a runway.
  • Relocating a busy railroad track without disturbing service.
  • Excavating 22 million cubic yards of dirt by the completion of the project—only 500,000 yards actually removed from the site.
  • Filling in an old detention basin to make room for a new runway and constructing a new, much larger basin complete with oil separation facilities and connection to Chicago's Deep Tunnel storm runoff system.
  • Constructing a second control tower that is operational before opening the new runway to traffic, as well as constructing a third control tower closer to the final completion of the program.
  • Moving a high-pressure 90-inch water line that feeds several suburbs to a new location without disrupting service.
  • Constructing a major new checkpoint for airport employees.
  • Building a new radar facility and a new air rescue and fire fighting building.
  • Installing a new, fully secure perimeter fence.
  • Moving a creek that ran through the site of the new runway.