O'HARE — A second round of O'Hare Airport's Fly Quiet Runway Rotation program, which aims to spread the burden of jet noise around the airport during overnight hours, is set to take off this spring under a plan approved Friday.
But unlike last year's rotation program, which ran continuously for six months from July to December, officials have only laid out enough runway for a three-month program this year.
That pattern will likely "dovetail" into a third test, drawn up to exclude a runway scheduled to close next year, according to Aaron Frame, a deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Aviation.
Facing a groundswell of complaints from residents who said a new runway has sent jumbo jets zooming above their homes since it opened in 2013, the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission approved the runway rotation program last year in an effort to temper the noise. Between July and December, the program directed overnight flights to change their takeoff and landing paths every week, ideally keeping any one neighborhood from being pummeled with noise from low-flying planes.
City residents filed almost 127,000 jet noise complaints with the city between July and December last year, while the Fly Quiet program was in effect — about an 11 percent drop compared to the previous six months, according to data released by the commission. The number of people filing complaints, meanwhile, fell by about 15 percent.
The 12-week follow-up program approved by the noise commission on Friday swaps out five of the program's 10 runway configurations from last year, citing safety concerns from air traffic controllers and federal regulators. The new set-up would send slightly more flights over city neighborhoods like Norwood Park, Edison Park and Wildwood.
The schedule, set to begin in "late April or early May," would alternate between sending jets on diagonal paths and bringing them into east-west runways, the latter of which sends more of them over city neighborhoods, Frame said.
Officials will have to keep tweaking the overnight landing and take-off configurations to keep up with coming shifts in runways promised by the O'Hare Modernization Program, they said. A diagonal runway is set to be decommissioned in spring 2018, with another east-west runway coming online in 2020.
The interim period will draw city leaders into a balancing act between evenly spreading noise impacts while molding to the long-term vision of federal aviation officials, Frame said.
'We're looking at Fly Quiet options for this year, but we also want to prepare our options for 2018 and 2019," Frame said. "So there's a fair amount of work to do over the next two years."
Members of the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition, which formed in 2013 to represent residents upset by incessant jet noise, chaffed at the renewed program, arguing that it should take more advantage of the ill-fated diagonal runway while it’s still in use.
That runway sends more planes over the wooded and industrial areas northwest of the airport, instead of the bustling suburbs and city neighborhoods to its east, according Dan Dwyer, a member of the coalition’s leadership team.
“When you’re shifting more of the impact from west to east, you’re making a disproportionately large impact on those communities that are more concentrated,” Dwyer said. “So from our standpoint, there’s a feeling like last year’s rotation was as good as it’s ever going to get.”
The shift is why Cate Dunlap, the 41st ward’s representative to the commission, said she “reluctantly supported” this year’s plan. The alternative, she said, would have been to go back to the airport’s 20-year-old Fly Quiet program, which includes just four landing patterns that don’t follow any definite schedule.
“Would it be better than it was last year? No,” Dunlap said. “But is it better than having no real rotation plan, with no predictability? I think it clearly is.”
The decommissioning of the diagonal runway, meanwhile, “shouldn’t be a surprise,” Dunlap said, as federal aviation officials have planned its demise for more than a decade. It's one of two diagonal runways to be scrapped in favor of two new east-west runways as part of the modernization plan, which the Federal Aviation Administration has called necessary for "reducing delays and increasing capacity to meet future aviation needs."
“Of course it would be better to keep the runway, but we’ve known since 2005 that that just isn’t going to happen,” Dunlap said. “So the question is no longer how do we stop it from happening, but how do we handle the flights so that we’re best managing their impact?”