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Plan Designed to Quiet the Night Skies Near O'Hare Advances

By Heather Cherone | February 17, 2016 5:48am
 A United Airlines jet sits on the newest runway to open at O'Hare Airport.
A United Airlines jet sits on the newest runway to open at O'Hare Airport.
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DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

O'HARE — Northwest Side residents could be able to sleep soundly for up to a week at a time under a plan to rotate the O'Hare Airport runways used at night approved Tuesday by a special committee of the O’Hare Noise Commission.

If approved next month by the full commission and given the green light by the Federal Aviation Administration, a six-month test could start in May or June that would direct all O'Hare jet traffic from approximately 11 p.m. to approximately 5 a.m. to just one runway for arrivals and one for departures.

Reporter Heather Cherone explains what this plan could mean for the neighborhood:

The pair of runways picked for nighttime air travel would change every week in an effort to give areas surrounding the airport a break from the jet noise that some residents contend has made it impossible for them to get an uninterrupted night of sleep since an east-west runway opened in 2013.

 Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said both O'Hare and Midway should be in full compliance before the end of the year.
Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said both O'Hare and Midway should be in full compliance before the end of the year.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

The rotation would include a diagonal runway on the west side of the airport until 2019, when it is slated to be demolished as part of the final phase of the airport expansion.

City officials have steadfastly rejected pleas from members of the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition to keep the runways in service at O'Hare as the only way to reduce jet noise over the Northwest Side.

But planes would not have to follow the Fly Quiet policy if wind or weather conditions would make using those runways dangerous, officials said. In addition, air traffic control or airport operators could also direct planes to other runways.

A schedule of which runways will be in use at night would be published so people will know what to expect, officials said.

"A week of sleep sounds great to me, much less a month," said Catherine Dunlap, the 41st Ward representative to the commission and a member of the committee.

The plan to rotate the runways designated for nighttime use every month was approved unanimously by the committee, although consultants hired by suburbs west of the airport said the runways in use at night should change daily to ensure the noise is spread evenly.

While federal regulations define nighttime airport operations as starting at 10 p.m. and lasting until 7 a.m., the plan would allow an additional runway to be used for departures from 10-11 p.m. In addition, a second arrival runway would be available from 5-6 a.m. if needed.

Dunlap and Des Plaines Ald. Malcolm Chester voted against the plan to allow more than one runway to be used to meet demand.

At the committee's January meeting, it approved five new flight paths for nighttime flights designed to concentrate noise in less populated areas. But the new paths would travel over parts of the 38th and 41st ward.

The committee's approval of the plan is a "big breakthrough" in city officials' effort to reduce jet noise, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said.

But 41st Ward resident Frank Gagliardi said he was disappointed that more runways could be used at night to meet airlines' demand, regardless of the noise they generate.

"Six hours of sleep at night isn't enough," Gagliardi said. "This is basically meaningless."

Evans, though, said the proposal would give residents "significant" relief from noise at night for the first time in years, saying the current voluntary restrictions on nighttime operations at O'Hare, known as Fly Quiet, aren't enforced. That program encourages pilots and air traffic controllers to fly over expressways, industrial areas and forest preserves to reduce the noise over residential areas at night.

"This is a hugely important first step," Evans said in a news conference after the vote to send the proposal to the full O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, which is scheduled to consider the plan at its March 11 meeting.

Evans said she has no "hesitation" in expecting federal officials — who have the ultimate authority over airport operations — to approve the plan once it is adopted by the full commission.

"I'm very confident they will ratify these plans," Evans said.

After the six-month test of the runway rotation, the plan will be tweaked if necessary and implemented permanently, Evans said.

Once that is complete, Evans said she would turn her attention to long-term changes to flight paths to and from the airport designed to "spread the noise out and balance operations."

"We're going to use every tool in the tool kit," Evans said.

The committee's action came over the objections of Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), whose chief of staff Chris Vittorio asked that the vote be postponed until after the next City Council meeting, set for March 16.

A measure proposed by Napolitano that seeks to halt the expansion of the airport and reopen the diagonal runway closed on the east side of the airport is expected to be called for a vote, Vittorio said.

The $8.7 billion O'Hare Modernization Program has sent hundreds of flights over areas of the Northwest Side like North Park, Jefferson Park, Edgebrook, Edison Park and Norwood Park that previously heard little or no jet noise before an east-west runway opened in October 2013.

That incensed many residents, who have inundated both elected officials and the city's official complaint hotline with tens of thousands of complaints.

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