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Chicago O'Hare outlines timing of decade-long expansion works

Chicago O'Hare International airport is set to start work on an $8.5 billion plan to overhaul and expand its congested terminal complex next year.

The city of Chicago, which operates the airport, will begin with an expansion of terminal 5 in 2019 in preparation for major works on its central terminal area, including replacing terminal 2 with a new global terminal by 2028.

This is the "largest capital expansion in the airport's history", said Carole Brown, the city's chief financial officer, in a 2 November webcast roadshow for a $1.8 billion bond to finance the beginning of construction.

The works will increase the number of gates at Chicago O'Hare by up to 15% to 220 when complete, while also updating and expanding terminals and concourses to accommodate higher passenger numbers.

O'Hare is one of few US airports that has two major US airline hubs. American Airlines and United Airlines both consider it a strategic base, with the former carrying 35% and the latter nearly 45% of the 38.4 million passengers that departed the airport in 2017, FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

Both carriers support the capital programme, despite a brief spat earlier this year over the number of gates each would receive when the works are complete.

Chicago O'Hare is the third busiest airport in the USA, handling 79.8 million passengers in 2017, data from the Airport Council International North America chapter (ACI-NA) shows.

CONSTRUCTION TIMING

The bond prospectus provides some of the first details of the construction timing of the project. Work on terminal 5, which includes adding eight gates for 28 total, will run from 2019 to 2021. This will allow Delta Air Lines, the fourth largest carrier at O'Hare, to move to the facility and vacate space in terminal 2 that is slated for demolition.

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City of Chicago

Work on two satellite concourses to the west of United's operation in terminal 1 will begin in 2020. Satellite 2 will be built first opening in 2023, likely to accommodate the United Express operation that must vacate terminal 2 before the space can be demolished. Satellite 1, which will be connected to the existing concourse C, work will begin in 2021 and complete in 2024.

The central piece of the project, the O'Hare global terminal, will not begin for another five years. The facility, which will be built on the site of existing terminal 2, will include a new international arrivals facility that will serve both American and United.

"The project is anticipated to consolidate United, American and their respective alliance operations into facilities operated at the global terminal, significantly reducing the number of passengers required to connect between the domestic terminal complex and terminal 5," says Brown.

Other works include adding three gates to the five-gate concourse L expansion that American opened earlier this year by 2022, and building a new underground automated people mover connecting the global terminal with the two new satellite concourses by 2024.

Later works will comprise moving all domestic airlines, including Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines, to terminal 5 with Delta and international carriers unaligned with either American or United.

Another change is how gates will be allocated. In 2021, O'Hare will move to a system of "preferential" gate assignments based on an airline's flight activity during the previous year, instead of one that provides airlines with exclusive use for the length of their lease.

This change should open space for airlines with minimal, or no, presence at Chicago O'Hare to expand. This has been an on-going issue for carriers like Alaska Airlines or JetBlue.

American initially opposed the capital expansion, citing an imbalance in the number of gates given to hometown United. The dispute was settled in March when Chicago agreed to move up construction of the three additional concourse L gates.

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