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Referendum May Give Residents a Chance to Shout Down Jet Noise

 The opening of a new east-west runway at O'Hare last fall has prompted noise complaints from households near the airport that heard little or no noise before.
The opening of a new east-west runway at O'Hare last fall has prompted noise complaints from households near the airport that heard little or no noise before.
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NORWOOD PARK — Residents of the Far Northwest Side fed up with the racket caused by jets using O'Hare Airport's new runway may get a chance to tell federal officials to turn down the volume.

Ald. Mary O'Connor (41st) and Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) want voters in the Nov. 4 general election to weigh in on whether Congress should allow more homes to qualify for subsidized soundproofing, such as new attic insulation, air conditioning, exterior doors, storm doors and windows that block all noise.

"We want to give the public a chance to weigh in with their vote," Laurino said. "We need to call the FAA's attention to the problem."

Laurino and O'Connor said the advisory referendum — which must be approved by the Chicago City Council before making it on to the ballot — is part of their strategy to address the outcry prompted by the opening of a new east-west runway last fall that sent hundreds of more flights over neighborhoods that had little or no jet noise in previous years.

"We're determined to leave no stone unturned," O'Connor said. "We're going to keep putting pressure on [federal officials] to pay attention to our community."

From January 2012 to January 2013, the number of complaints to the city-run toll-free hotline rose approximately 366 percent, according to data compiled by the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

Nearly 54 percent of the complaints filed in January 2013 came from Chicago residents, most coming from Laurino's 39th Ward, O'Connor's 41st Ward and Ald. John Arena's 45th Ward.

However, 57 percent of the complaints from Chicago residents were filed from just five homes.

Part of the $6.6 billion O'Hare Modernization Plan, approved in 2001, the new runway, which opened Oct. 17, allows planes to take off heading west, while arriving planes approach the airport from the east. 

In January, O'Connor and Laurino called for airport officials, representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino and representatives of the major airlines that operate at O'Hare to appear at a City Council hearing to answer questions about the noise generated by the new flight path.

However, scheduling issues have delayed the hearing for nearly three months, leaving Laurino and O'Connor frustrated.

Laurino said coordinating the schedules was "like herding cats."

"We aren't letting up," O'Connor said.

Federal Aviation Administration officials have said the new runway configuration will be safer and more efficient, especially during bad weather at O'Hare. Before the new runway opened, most planes used O'Hare's diagonal runways, which often forced the planes to cross paths on the ground.

Landing and departing planes must be spread more equitably among the airport's runways to prevent Norwood Park, Sauganash, Forest Glen, Edgebrook and North Park from bearing the brunt of the jet noise, Laurino said.

However, officials from the FAA and the Chicago Department of Aviation have been reluctant to change jets' flight paths.

Andolino has rejected calls to spread out arrivals and departures among all of the airport runways, saying it would "simply displace noise impacts from one neighborhood to another.''

Karen Pride, a spokeswoman for the Aviation Department, did not return a request for a comment about the proposed referendum.

Earlier this year, Andolino rejected a request from U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) to expand the airport's voluntary fly quiet program, which urges planes to choose flight paths over less-populated areas such as forest preserves and expressways from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

That would snarl traffic by limiting the number of available runways, Andolino told the congressman. 

The map that outlines the amount of sound expected in areas around the airport will be updated once the airport modernization project is complete in 2020, officials said.

A study that could result in more homes qualifying for soundproofing is underway but has no estimated date of completion, FAA spokesman Anthony Molinaro said.