Airlines sue Chicago to stop O'Hare expansion

Passengers stand at the ticket counter inside the American Airlines terminal the day before Thanksgiving at O'Hare International Airport November 25, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. According to AAA, 38.4 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home over the holiday weekend, an increase of 1.4 percent over last year. The number of people traveling by car is expected to increase by 2.1 percent while the number of fliers is projected to drop 6.7 percent.

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Kai Ryssdal: The weather forecast for Chicago, Ill., today was for a high of 24 degrees -- snow showers or some kind of freezing precipitation predicted at some point. That only goes to validate one of aviation's great winter rules to live by: Steer clear of O'Hare airport. Chicago's main hub consistently ranks among the worst for delays.

Which is part of why a decade ago, the city and the airlines who use that airport made a deal to update O'Hare. The basic plan was to improve the flow of passengers, add more runways and share the costs. Phase one is done. Phase two, you might say, is delayed.

Marketplace's Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: Eighty percent of the flights that go through O'Hare are run by United or American Airlines. But the two companies have a lot of other things going on. United is reeling from a merger with Continental; American is battling airfare websites. And both know Wall Street is watching them very closely, says aerospace analyst Ray Neidl.

Ray Neidl: Financially right now, they're concerned about their next meal, and they're looking at every nook and cranny to see where they can economize.

Airlines at O'Hare agreed to pay $2 billion -- the lion's share of the cost -- for the next phase of airport expansion. But right now, that looks bad to investors. So American and United have sued the city of Chicago to block the next part of the project. Their argument is this:

Joe Schwieterman: Right now there's plenty of room at O'Hare.

Joe Schwieterman studies transportation at DePaul University. He says air traffic is not increasing at the rate it was when the expansion plans were first made -- a decade ago. So United and American say the city shouldn't force them to move forward until growth is back on track.

Schwieterman: We want triggers, we want milestones to be reached before we start spending the extra billions.

But the city wants to lock in contracts now, when construction costs are down because of the recession. The O'Hare project involves bulldozing neighborhoods, relocating thousands of residents, and moving a cemetery. City officials say if the airlines stall the project, it'll just cost more down the runway.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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