Chicago, Austin See Airport Growth

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.

Approximate position of the new runway being added at O’Hare

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. What surprises me about Austin is the international routes like BA to LHR when airports of the same size and same traffic don’t attract such international routes. There must be more specific needs for this area that support it.

    1. @DaninMCI….there’s a very heavy tech presence that has grown in Austin over the last decade. There’s a lot of demand from companies like Dell, Samsung, HP, Apple, HomeAway, etc that are already established here in town, as well as a recent swell in startups. Throw in SXSW, ACL, and the other events/conferences held here and it’s pretty high demand year round.

    2. LHR started as a 788 and was upgauged to a 4-class 772 this last fall. That may have been oversized (or just intentionally temporary) since they did switch to a 789 on Feb 1. By all accounts the route is doing very well.

  2. Seth, this summer already brings the 4th international destination (after UK, Mexico and Canada) and the second regular wide-body (763) when Condor starts seasonal service to FRA on June 27, 2016.

    In addition there is a plan to move the LCCs (Allegiant and Frontier) out of the Main Terminal and into the old South Terminal (only used by VivaAerobús for a short stint), which relieves some congestion.

    And finally, at least some change has occurred in terms of pax access to the terminal as ABIA just built a 2nd parking garage and new rental car center. There has also been significant work done to widen SH71, the main access highway (with more in-progress).

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