Inside the $8.5 billion Chicago O’Hare Airport remodel

(CNN) — The city of Chicago has long had one of the busiest airport systems in the world.

Before the jet age and until the late 1950s, Chicago Midway Airport in the city’s southwest was the world’s busiest airport by passenger volume.

However, the runways were too short for early jet aircraft and within just a few years all flights were moved to O’Hare in the North West, which had longer runways and newly built terminals.

This move made O’Hare the world’s busiest airport in 1962, a title it held for over 25 years. However, the high passenger volume had its price: the airport was notoriously overloaded.

Disadvantaged by the city’s unpredictable weather, the runway configuration that attracted jets didn’t hold up.

When O’Hare finally lost the crown of the world’s busiest airport—to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson—in 1998, it was notoriously overcrowded and lost ground in most performance rankings, often ranking low on customer satisfaction.

The only way out was a radical modernization of the runway system, which began in 2005 and cost $6 billion. The work was completed in 2021, drastically reducing delays and paving the way for a complete renovation of the rest of the airport – with an additional investment of US$8.5 billion – that will transform it “from curb to gate”. says the city (and maybe climb back up).

Eight runways

Today, O’Hare has eight runways – six parallel to each other and two that run diagonally. Previously, it had three pairs of parallel runways that intersected, a configuration that increased the risk of aircraft collisions and was prone to disruption from weather conditions.

“We now have the most efficient runway network of any commercial airport in the world,” said Robert Hoxie, chief development officer at the Chicago Department of Aviation. “We’ve reduced delays by 65% ​​- that’s tens of thousands of flights that are now operating on time but didn’t previously run.”

It was a long process, but by 2015 things had improved enough to draw attention to the terminal buildings. American Airlines and United, both of which have hubs in O’Hare, reached out to the city to discuss major improvements.

“The original passenger terminals were built in the mid-1950s,” says Hoxie, “they’re now over 60 years old and simply don’t have the amenities that passengers want, nor the efficiencies that airlines need to run a good connecting hub.” .”

A rendering of the new Y-shaped terminal building.

Chicago Department of Aviation

In 2019, the idea fused into O’Hare 21, a radical plan to transform the airport and prepare it for the 21st century.

The big ticket items are an all-new ‘global’ terminal, two new satellite concourses for Terminal 1, and a complete overhaul of the existing Terminal 5 – but the plan involves almost 100 separate projects, many of which are smaller but functional improvements. such as car park upgrades, new water mains and electrical distribution systems, and renovated underground pedestrian tunnels.

The lion’s share of the investment will go towards upgrading the terminals, which will transform the passenger experience at O’Hare.

It’s a long-term plan – work won’t be completed until 2028 at the earliest – but just like the runway modernization, it will be delivered in stages, upgrading the airport bit by bit. Some areas of the new Terminal 5, which is currently being renovated, are already open to the public.

A Chicago icon

“We’re spending more than a billion dollars to modernize Terminal 5, to expand its capacity, but also to modernize its systems,” says Hoxie. The terminal will no longer focus on international flights, but instead on airlines that simply carry passengers to and from Chicago, including low-cost carriers like Spirit. Later in the fall, Delta will also move here.

The upgrades include 10 new gates, a new baggage handling system and new security checkpoints.

Work began in March 2020 when the world was in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak: “The pandemic hasn’t been helpful to our business in general, but a less crowded terminal has enabled us to work more efficiently and faster than we thought. d be able to,” says Hoxie.

An even larger investment, $2.2 billion, will go into an all-new international terminal that will be built on top of the soon-to-be-demolished Terminal 2 — the oldest facility still in use today.

Currently, O’Hare has a single international terminal, separate from the domestic terminal, requiring passengers on connecting flights to transfer terminals.

“In the new Terminal 2, dubbed the O’Hare Global Terminal, passengers can clear U.S. Customs, return to security and be just minutes from their departure gate — without having to take a train to another terminal or bag across the airfield,” says Hoxie.

The design of the new building is the result of a competition won by Chicago studio ORD and is inspired by one of the city’s icons, the Municipal Device. It’s a circled Y symbol, representing the confluence of the North and South branches of the Chicago River, and can be found on buildings, fences, lampposts, and bridges across the city.

Similarly, the new terminal building will be Y-shaped, with a six-pointed glass skylight positioned at the intersection of the branches. The roof will be clad in wood, with folds aligned to maximize natural daylight.

This is what the new Terminal 5 should look like.

This is what the new Terminal 5 should look like.

Chicago Department of Aviation

At 2.2 million square feet, the Global Terminal will be 75% larger than the existing Terminal 2 and one of the largest in the US. This makes room for an array of amenities, including grooming rooms, yoga studios, and a variety of food and beverage options.

It’s also set to become more efficient for airlines, thanks to a new baggage handling system with automatic storage for 5,000 bags and more flexible gates that can handle wide-body aircraft and then quickly reconfigure for smaller ones.

Previously, the lack of such flexibility had meant that O’Hare’s original 189 gates were reduced to 184 over the years as the average wingspan of aircraft increased to save fuel.

By the end of the entire project, gate capacity will increase by 25% and total passenger terminal area will increase from around five million square feet today to almost nine million square feet.

However, work on the new Global Terminal, as well as the two new satellite concourses, will not begin for several years: first, a multitude of regulatory and environmental assessments must be completed, and then replacement piers must be built before the current ones in use in Terminal 2 can be decommissioned and demolished will.

Meanwhile, work continues on the renovation of Terminal 5, which will be completed by the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, it will never close as passengers and construction workers live together: “I think the best analogy is if you’ve ever done a remodeling project on your house – you’ll know that eventually, if you’re remodeling your kitchen, you’ll realize that you’re washing your plate in the bathroom sink,” says Hoxie. “It’s a difficult design. It’s very challenging.”

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