Political wrangling has begun in earnest over a formal proposal by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to expand delay-ridden O'Hare International Airport rather than build a third Chicago airport in Peotone, 65km (40 miles) away.

The $6 billion expansion plan - a price tag already being challenged as unrealistically low - includes construction of a new runway, the reconfiguration of intersecting runways to provide six parallel runways capable of simultaneous use, and a new 55-gate terminal. A companion proposal, requiring additional funding, includes a package of ground transportation changes to improve access to O'Hare.

Daley's long-awaited plan is less ambitious than an alternative scheme for two new runways, but already has generated vociferous opposition from community groups who say that any expansion would generate unacceptable noise and pollution. State transportation officials who were proponents of the Peotone airport plan have also railed against the proposed expansion. Daley's proposal is supported by O'Hare's two major tenants - American and United - and by Chicago's business community.

The O'Hare proposal was sent to Illinois Governor George Ryan under a long-held belief that local changes to Illinois airports required state government approval under the 1945 Illinois Aeronautics Act. But now, even the wording of that statute is being challenged. An analysis by lawyers for American, being studied by state and local bodies, suggests that O'Hare might be exempt from the law because of language that gives rights to airports in existence before the 1945 Act. O'Hare, originally called Douglas Field, came into being in 1943.

The Chicago airport issue has been so contentious politically that Daley - a Democrat - was under congressional pressure to decide on a plan by 1 July. Governor Ryan, who is a Republican, faces a 1 September deadline for his decision.

The Chicago Department of Aviation estimates that Daley's expansion plan would allow O'Hare to handle 1.6 million operations a year, up from the current capacity of 930,000.

Source: Airline Business