Chicago’s O’Hare airport is trading 2-for-1 on runways with a plan to spend more than a billion dollars to add a sixth east-west parallel runway to its operations. The new strip – 9C/27C – will replace the 32/14s and bring increased capacity to the field during normal operations but also potentially reduce aircraft flow during irregular days as winds shift. Perhaps most surprising about the move is the pace at which it will be executed. News first came out about the expansion over this past weekend and the Mayor expects that bids from contractors will be received in March and that construction will begin in May. For a major capital project like this that is spectacularly fast.
It also raises some questions about what O’Hare really needs from a capacity perspective. Most delays at the airport these days appear to be coming on the ground, at gates and on the taxi-ways rather than queuing for arrivals or departures. Getting more planes on the ground at peak times is terrific in theory, but without more gates to handle those planes it is unclear what the true value proposition is here. A new, centralized de-icing pad is part of the master plan so that could help in some areas, freeing gates and reducing the time between deicing and departure for many planes but it is unclear if that will be sufficient to reduce the gate squeeze the airport feels these days.
A thousand miles to the south Austin, Texas is moving forward with an expansion of its terminal with plans to add 9 gates and 70,000 square feet of additional space to its existing 300,000 square foot operation. Several gates will be wide-body capable based on the renderings suggesting that the city hopes to attract more international service following on the success of the British Airways flight to London. The existing terminal is bursting at the seams, currently handling more passengers annually than the original design called for so the growth is needed. But will other long-haul carriers show up?
Additional service to Mexico is possible and having that in the main terminal should help compared to the prior LCC efforts staged in the temporary facility across the field. And there is potential for a few 787 routes to show up, depending on fuel prices and global economic conditions and currencies in the next few years. But, most importantly, the new space will ease some of the overcrowding currently being felt in the existing gate hold areas. The average aircraft size at ABIA is steadily increasing, adding passengers without necessarily adding more gates or flights. By bringing in the space for more gates there should be room for those extra passengers to overflow, providing a more comfortable experience for everyone. The lack of adjustment to the traffic flow in and out of the airport, on the other hand, means those additional passengers – the vast majority of whom are O/D and not connecting – will still suffer when trying to get to and from the terminal.
Nine new gates means potential for a hundred new flights daily which would be a significant increase. But the region seems capable of supporting it, at least for now.
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