CHICAGO — A six-month trial run for a program designed to spread the burden of jet noise around O'Hare Airport is set to expire on Christmas Day, and its renewal in 2017 is no guarantee.
In July, the city Aviation Department's "Fly Quiet" runway rotation program directed overnight flights to change their takeoff and landing paths weekly, keeping any one neighborhood from being pummeled by engine noise.
Although officials can't mandate where pilots land, their guidelines were followed about 48 percent of the time between the program's start on July 6 and Saturday, according to city data. About 100 planes take off and land at O'Hare between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. daily.
Because volatile weather sometimes leads planes to change directions so they can land safely against the wind, pilots can be directed to use a second set of runways as part of the rotation. Planes used that alternate configuration about 19 percent of the time.
The runway rotation was devised as a response to a growing chorus of activists who contend jet noise has made it impossible to get an uninterrupted night of sleep since an east-west runway opened in 2013.
Based on the number of complaints filed with the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission this year, the program has gotten mixed results.
City residents lodged a little more than 85,000 overnight noise complaints between July and October this year, about the same number as during the previous four months, before the rotation program started, according to data collected by the commission. But the number of people complaining dropped by about 14 percent during that time, indicating growing frustration among a shrinking number of people.
But when lined up against this time last year, overnight noise complaints appear to have fallen off a cliff. More than 125,000 overnight complaints were submitted by city residents between July and October 2015, nearly 50 percent more than the same period this year.
City aviation officials will spend about six weeks huddling with airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration to review the data, according to a spokesman. The agencies will present their findings at February's meeting of the noise commission, and after that the body will vote on whether to renew the program or scrap it.
But members of the commission, which includes representatives of six city wards and more than two dozen suburbs near the airport, have likely already made up their minds, 38th Ward Ald. Nicholas Sposato said.
"I think most people are already pretty set in their thinking," said Sposato, vice chairman of the City Council's Aviation Committee. "I'm hoping we can continue the rotation, because it's been good for us, but the towns suddenly having to take on some of the brunt of the noise probably won't like it."
Ald. John Arena (45th), who sits on the commission, will vote to renew the program, according to his chief of staff.
But 41st Ward Ald. Anthony Napolitano, whose ward includes the airport and the city neighborhoods closest to it, isn't as certain that the runway rotation has made a real difference in his constituents' lives, according to his chief of staff, Chris Vittorio.
"From the feedback we've gotten, it's seemed like most people weren't even aware that anything changed," Vittorio said. "We even got some calls from people complaining that it's worse for them. ... My guess is that those were the weeks when the [designated runway] was right over them, so it was more concentrated."
Meanwhile, members of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, the activists who pushed for the program in the first place, will be lobbying hard to get it renewed in the spring. But they aren't stopping there; the coalition will call for the program to be expanded to include daylight hours, according to John Kane, one of the group's leaders.
"Has it eliminated noise? No. But from the data and anecdotal information we've seen, it's truly had an impact," Kane said. "If [aviation officials] are true to their word and want to be good stewards of this community, they'll allow this to be extended as a permanent mandatory program."
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