CHICAGO (MCT) — The new $1.3 billion runway that opened at O'Hare International Airport on Thursday immediately began to provide a payoff on the long-term investment, with airlines running mostly on-time operations despite overcast skies that normally would cause some flight delays, officials said.
A minor glitch did occur, forcing the Chicago Department of Aviation to shut down the new runway for about an hour and a half in the morning after pilots reported that one or more centerline lights in the runway had broken off or popped out of fixtures, according to controllers in O'Hare tower.
"During inspection, it was discovered that a runway light needed repair,'' city aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride said.
The problem was fixed before noon, when under a steady rain, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other elected officials as well as hundreds of airport guests attended a runway commissioning ceremony held inside a big white tent only a few hundred feet away from the new runway.
The addition of a fourth parallel east-west runway on the airfield essentially creates new options for O'Hare's air-traffic control playbook, which contains different combinations of runways used specifically for either arrivals or departures, officials said.
The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the use of intersecting runways when cloud ceilings are below certain heights and visibility is reduced, requiring pilots to operate under Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) procedures, which was the case Thursday morning.
But instead of being limited to two arrival runways, which would reduce the number of airplanes allowed to land each hour, O'Hare controllers were able to use three arrival runways, including the new airstrip called 10 Center/28 Center.
As a result, the arrival rate of 88 landings per hour during low cloud ceilings and rain was increased to 106 landings per hour by using the new 10,800-foot runway, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.
"This project is a perfect example of efficient modernization. It shows that if you invest in efficiency, you get great operational results,'' said Jim Compton, vice chairman and chief revenue officer at United Airlines.
Triple-runway arrival capability in almost all weather conditions, including fog and snow, will help the airport better handle the traffic that the airlines throw at it, said Dan Carrico, president of the air-traffic controllers union at O'Hare.
Addressing a cheering crowd of O'Hare supporters at the runway-opening ceremony, Emanuel said the airfield expansion project means travelers will reach their destinations "anywhere in the United States or anywhere in the world daily and directly, on time -- weather-permitting.''
The last comment drew a laugh from the crowd. Emanuel's predecessor, Richard M. Daley, had sold the runway project to the public as a solution to flight delays caused by bad weather.
Over time as the airlines add more flights, the new runway will help O'Hare accommodate almost 90,000 additional flights annually, according to the city. The opening of 10 Center/28 Center on Thursday essentially flipped the switch on new flight patterns that will bring planes to and from the airport westbound 70 percent of the time and eastbound 30 percent.
The new alignment and the planned ramping up of flights have sparked outrage among thousands of Northwest Side homeowners and suburbanites living west of O'Hare who will be the most impacted by changes in jet noise.
Homeowners protesting the new runway were kept far away from the airfield Thursday.
In their remarks, Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth noted that more needs to be done to provide noise-abatement to communities under O'Hare's flight corridors.
Emanuel later reminded reporters that when he was in Congress he represented residents living near O'Hare.
"We are going to continue to expand the airport and also make sure that the residents around the airport get the type of resources and support they need,'' Emanuel said.
During the runway commissioning ceremony, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino was drowned out in her welcoming remarks by a plane landing on the new runway.
Moments later, the audience broke into applause in response to the thunder of a jet taking off. But the plane was actually taking off from a different runway, just 1,400 feet north of the new runway, according to controllers in O'Hare tower. Runway 10 Center/28 Center will be used primarily as an arrival runway, the FAA said.
The total cost of 10 Center/28 Center was $1.3 billion, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Construction costs included relocating almost 1,500 graves at St. Johannes Cemetery, moving Union Pacific Railroad tracks twice, and other projects, officials said.
The runway's opening marks the last component of the first phase of the O'Hare expansion project, which was originally estimated to cost $6.6 billion in 2001 dollars. The cost estimates subsequently escalated to $8.35 billion in 2007 dollars and the latest cost is $9.7 billion in 2012 dollars, according to the city.
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