Here’s Chicago O’Hare’s Major Overhaul Plan

Chicago’s O’Hare airport isn’t the most modern or beautiful airport. But the biggest problems they face are weather, distance from the city, and insufficient gates to grow. They’re planning to do something about gates while in the process rebuilding terminals.

I’m ultimately happy with O’Hare today since so far it’s the only place with a United Polaris lounge, American’s second Flagship lounge just opened there, and they’ve got Tortas Frontera.

Don’t expect big new competition to come from an enlarged airport, existing players should benefit although Delta should get a larger footprint out of the changes.

The 10 Year Vision to Recreate O’Hare

Of course a 10 year plan — dubbed O’Hare 21 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel — is going to take much longer than 10 years. But here’s what they’re envisioning:

  • Terminal 2 (Delta, Air Canada, United Express) becomes a new international terminal
  • Terminal 1 (United) expands
  • 30 new gates in total including the 5 on terminal 3’s L concourse that’s already been announced for American and 9 more in the current international terminal 5.
  • Delta, JetBlue, and Spirit should get more gates out of this. Terminal 1 becomes Star Alliance,
    terminal 3 oneworld, and terminal 5 SkyTeam.

Under the plan, the city would tear down Terminal 2 in sections to avoid disrupting operations like at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, which is a mess. The new “Global Terminal,” as Evans said she’d like to rechristen Terminal 2, provide international passengers flying on United, American and their foreign partner airlines easy access to domestic flights. In other words, no longer would most connecting travelers have to maneuver with their baggage from Terminal 5 to Terminals 1, 2 or 3. Other new gates would be provided by extending United’s current remote Concourse C in Terminal 1, requiring the construction of new tunnels.

Doing all of that would free up space in Terminal 5, which could be converted at least in part to domestic service, allowing more space for Delta, JetBlue, Spirit and Delta, all of which reportedly are interested in adding gate space here.

Credit: Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans Presentation to the Economic Club of Chicago

The plan is near-final, pending federal government and city council approval, and the airport authority expects to determine who gets which gates by year-end.

Somehow the airport authority thinks the slow growth in new international flights out of the airport is because of ugly terminals.

United’s C Concourse at O’Hare

Don’t Expect Expansion to Mean More Competition

One reason we don’t have more airline competition is that we don’t have airport competition. The Chicago Department of Aviation manages both O’Hare and Midway airports. Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans says the new plan for O’Hare was “produced by the airlines” which means the incumbent airlines.

Remember that a major reason that Alaska Airlines is buying Virgin America is access to congested airports. Alaska didn’t think they could duplicate the gates and slots that Virgin has on their own.

American Airlines at Chicago O’Hare

When you look at New York airports renovations are being funded through public-private partnerships. Delta is putting up billions of dollars, but that gives them special rights. By the way they’re going to get their money back. The government trades a future revenue stream from the terminal so that Delta puts up the cash. And that’s why we get “high end retail” in airport renovations, it’s not because passengers are clamoring for more airport shopping rather those stores generate more revenue which means more going to the residual claimants (like Delta).

The Chicago Department of Aviation expects their plan to be approved by the Trump administration’s FAA because the administration is ‘business friendly’ and they believe their plan is friendly towards their existing airline businesses.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Public/Private seems to work very well. Some local golf courses are still publicly owned yet managed by private companies. The company can correctly manage the course and the public maintains ownership. Win/win…

  2. Bringing international flights closer with partner domestic connections, what a novel idea **cough AA at LHR cough**

  3. Maybe they’ll also update the overhead signage to display current time.

    Customer service in Terminal 5 had a big clock on the desk so those walking by can see see the local time. When we stopped to ask why the digital clocks on overhead signage no longer work, we were told they are broken and the parts to replace are too expensive.

    What a pitiful airport and I’m saying that as a lifelong Chicagoan.

  4. In my view, the only thing that needs to be changed is that the airport needs better connection between terminals 1, 2, 3, and 5.

    I am happy with the current setup, except that terminal 5 often has terrible security waits and does not have good availability for shops and restaurants. I really appreciate the new bus between T3 and T5 but it does not run year round and only flies passengers in one direction. Will they expand this with the changes?

    Some domestic airlines that were previously in T5 have moved out, so I have assumed it does not work well for them.

    I also really like the setup of T2 being mainly a Delta and Air Canada. The precheck security line usually hardly as anyone using it there and I generally walk there from the other terminals.

  5. 1) Did you note a significant factor missing in this grandiose plan for ORD? Whatever happened to the much vaunted “ORD Express” to operate in addition to the all-stop CTA Blue Line subway? The route is already set, as it would operate out of (and could have run thru service from other suburbs) Union Station in the West Loop along the Metra commuter line; access the Canadian National Railway (requiring a third main track constructed); exit at the current Metra station for ORD on its own dedicated right-of-way directly into ORD. All that’s needed if for Mayor Emanuel to snap his fingers to his pals still in Congress, as he was all in just months ago..

    2) Note the lack of any embrace of a railway depot at ORD to serve regional cities within 400 miles, as already done in Europe and Asia. Competently scheduled and operated, such a regional intercity passenger rail service could certainly help the airlines, who utilize approximately 40-45% of their slots for short haul flights, as the profit is in their long haul flights. Ironically, we had a vast railway network inter-connecitng the towns and cities of the Midwest, until the federal government decided to subsidize airline expansion into the short haul markets. The privately-operated railroads could not compete with the federal treasury and its support of the private airlines.

  6. Looking forward to if and when American Airlines will be getting new mainline gates ? Everything seems to be connected to United in this map. Long distance from terminal 3.

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