O’Hare runway rotation test to end on Dec. 25
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Northwest Side residents could hear nighttime airplane noise on a weekly basis once again because the city Department of Aviation’s 6-month test of its "Fly Quiet" runway rotation plan that distributed flights through the use of both parallel and diagonal runways at O’Hare International Airport will end on Dec. 25.
The rotation plan called for a 25-week schedule that consisted of 12 one-week periods that would feature six parallel and diagonal configurations and six east-flow and six west-flow configurations to balance overnight noise. Each new week began on Sunday at 10 p.m. or after demand allowed the use of one arrival and one departure runway.
The current "Fly Quiet" program is a voluntary program that encourages pilots and air traffic controllers to use flight tracks that direct planes over forest preserves, highways and commercial and industrial areas to mitigate noise in residential areas.
The ad hoc committee of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission met on Nov. 30 to discuss the results from the first 12 weeks of the program and reviewed the regulatory process that had been established by the Federal Aviation Administration, which approved the rotation test in July. The administration approved the test on condition that it would not exceed 6 months, that it was requested by the city and that the data collected would be used to assess the operational and noise effects of the test, according to the FAA.
"The FAA allowed a 6-month test and anything past that time would require an environmental impact study," Mount Prospect Mayor Arlene Juracek, who is the chairwoman of the noise commission, said. "We need to sit down with the (Chicago Department of Aviation) and the FAA to understand what can be done and if we can continue the rotations."
The commission approved the rotation plan in May after it worked with the city aviation department, the FAA, the Suburban O’Hare Commission and the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition, which did not vote on the plans but which sat in on the meetings.
"The FAA has regulatory rules that it must follow, so it’s not a matter of simply extending it," Juracek said. "When it ends on the 26th we will gather all that data that has been collected and see what can be done."
Juracek said that members of the commission would like to continue the rotation because it provided some relief from overnight noise. She said that residents of towns such as Palatine and Schaumburg opposed extending the test because it had created noise that they had not previously experienced.
Alderman John Arena (45th), who is a member of the ad hoc committee and the technical committee of the commission, said that Northwest Side residents he heard from said that the test provided relief from jet noise.
"It was a 6-month test that is ending, and it will revert back to the original ‘Fly Quiet’ plan without the rotation of flights," Arena said. "The feedback that I have heard was that it provided relief. Even (the Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition) said that it has been effective in providing some relief for the Northwest Side.
FAIR is a coalition of groups that has lobbied for relief from jet noise.
"This gives us options," Arena said. "The CDA (city aviation department) has petitioned the FAA to extend the period, but it needs to have some time to analyze the data to see if it is something that they are willing to keep."
In the 12 weeks of the runway rotation test, the rotations began on average at about 11:13 p.m. and ended at about 5:34 a.m. "Fly Quiet" usually runs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., but on average it was administered from 10:53 p.m. to 5:42 a.m. during the 12 weeks.
According to the data, rotations were used on 78 out of 81 nights and primary runways were used 59 percent of the time, secondary runways were used 13 percent of the time and wide-body operations on runways smaller than 10,000 feet were used 41 percent of the time.
According to the data, there were 3,350 departures and 4,513 arrivals overnight during the 12 weeks. About 46 percent of the flights were by United and American airlines, 22 percent were other domestic flights, 15 percent were other international flights, 16 percent were cargo planes and 1 percent were general aviation.
The configurations used during the test were based on historical wind data. According to the data, Runway 32 Left, a diagonal runway, was used 35 percent of the time for departures. Runway 14 Right, a part of the diagonal, was used 5 percent of the time for departures and 7 percent for arrivals.
The other most heavily used runways were Runway 28 Right with 18 percent departures and 13 percent arrivals and Runway 22 Right with 20 percent arrivals and no departures.
Runway 14 Right 32 Left was renamed in September Runway 15-33 after the closing in 2015of Runway 14 Left 32 Right, a diagonal runway.
John Kane, one of the leaders of FAIR, said that the group is pushing to keeping the remaining diagonal runway open, instead of the scheduled closing in 2018. The group was formed after O’Hare switched to using east-west runways almost entirely as part of the O’Hare Modernization Plan. The change resulted in a large increase in jet noise in areas east and west of the airport.
"We think that the rotation plan should be continued permanently," Kane said. "We also think that the diagonal runway should be kept open as well. We at FAIR demand that the diagonal runway be kept open and that it stays open permanently.
"I find it interesting that they want to close that one diagonal runway, but during the test it was being used 30 to 40 percent of the time. It makes no sense to close it in 2 years and wait for when a new runway opens when they seem to have benefits of using it now."
Al Rapp of FAIR said that the continued use of the diagonal runway would be the next best solution in the interim, as the city, the noise commission and the FAA determine if they want to continue the rotations.
"If they don’t continue the rotations, then Northwest Siders won’t have relief," Rapp said. "One thing that we at FAIR would like to see happen is the use of Runway 15-33, which is a diagonal runway, so what happened was that part of the configuration they were using that runway a lot. We discovered that they were using it perhaps 40 percent of the time." Rapp said.
"That diagonal runway does not require an environmental impact study because it’s already a designated runway. The FAIR position is if the rotations have to end, at the minimum we can continue to use 15-33 in the next year and people would get some relief,"
However, Arena said that it would be wise to give city officials time to look at the data and make an informed decision instead of relying on "anecdotal information."
"We are slaves to the FAA in terms of what we can do," Arena said. "If we go by the book on this one, then on the 26th of December we will go back to the original flight patterns, and if that’s the case, the we have to hold off and analyze the data and see if the FAA will approve another rotation plan."
"You have to give them some time to look at the data and what it will show instead of anecdotal information," Arena said. "One of the benefits of the analysis will be the survey of anonymous complaints. Right now when people call, sometimes we don’t know where they are calling from. As someone who has been charged with aiding the problem in the 45th Ward, I want to see some of the complaint data.
"When you get that data you can pinpoint where someone is making a complaint from. The data will paint a picture if we need to make adjustments to the plan or if we are on the right track.
"Some suburbs have complained that they had increase in noise when they didn’t have any before, but that is the thing about fairness. You get noise one week and then no noise on the other week. It’s about fairness. We can’t go back to the same plan that Northwest Siders have been dealing with for decades because we need to give them some relief too."
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said that the agency has not chosen a position on the rotation plan.
"If the city wants to change the plan itself, we would need to conduct an environmental analysis of what is being requested," Molinaro said. "We could not speculate on what our response would be."
Kane said that FAIR believes that the rotation plan could be implemented again because it has reduced the number of noise complaints.
"It has decreased the number of complaints overall, but some have increased in the suburbs, in areas where they had no noise at all, but from talking to members of the ONCC I think they support the idea of the rotations," Kane said. "The complaints will skyrocket as soon as they go back to the way things were.
"When they opened the Wilson Avenue runway, the new one a few years ago, there were 520,000 complaints. We are dealing with a public catastrophe. Five hundred thousand in August. It’s a remarkable number.
"If you benchmark that against other airports that’s a stupefying number. People are asking what are you doing about this? Is anyone doing anything about it?"
Rapp said that the rotation test was used as a distraction by the city from the O’Hare Modernization Plan.
"I think that the test was used as a distraction to secure money for that sixth runway and to keep the issue away from the press," Rapp said. "The city didn’t want to have anything bad being said until the contracts were approved. Right now they are emboldened because the contract went to Walsh so that runways will get built at all cost."
According to the Walsh Group Web site, the company will build a new 225-foot north traffic control tower for the new runway as part of the $6.6 billion modernization plan, which includes seven Walsh projects that will increase O’Hare’s capacity from 2,700 to more than 3,800 operations per day.
"The problem is that the new runway won’t open until 2020 or 2021 and the diagonals are supposed to be closed by 2018, so that’s 2 years where they don’t know what they will do," Rapp said.
However, Juracek said that there is no reason to second guess what the city or the FAA are doing.
"The test hasn’t been completed yet," Juracek said. "We had a meeting and we looked at the data from one to 12 weeks. We need to collect the other data and then meet up with the CDA and the FAA to see what is feasible.
"What complicated things is that Runway 15/33 is supposed to close in 2018, so the question becomes do we come up with a short-term plan or a longer-term solution that looks past the closing of that diagonal. We will see if we can get something up and running again by July 5. We hope to keep it going sooner, but there is a schedule we have to keep."
"The FAA is willing to look at the process because they would like to use the test as a model at other airports that are having similar issues around the country," Juracek said. "There is no reason to think that all they are doing is twiddling their thumbs and waiting until the test is over."
The ad hoc committee will hold a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at which the aviation department will present data and analysis, including survey results of the entire duration of the 25-week rotation test.