Flight caps to vanish at O'Hare, but headaches may stick around
FAA's removal of limits, as planned, likely won't affect crowding or flight delays
By Jon Hilkevitch and Julie Johnsson
June 17, 2008
A few additional flights each hour are expected to trickle into O'Hare International Airport later this year as a result of the federal government's announcement Monday that it will end limits on landings.
Yet, to the likely dismay of weary air travelers, the decision is unlikely to lead to less crowded planes or fewer flight delays, despite the opening of a new runway in November that Chicago contends will boost the airport's capacity.
"We don't see a need for the caps at this point," Bobby Sturgell, the top official at the Federal Aviation Administration, said at O'Hare.
Standing alongside Mayor Richard Daley, Sturgell credited Chicago's $15 billion O'Hare expansion project.
But the flight caps are no longer necessary, or even relevant, because the airline business is in the midst of an unprecedented downturn spurred by record fuel prices and a weak economy.
In better times, other airlines would have moved quickly to take advantage of the opening created by the FAA's maneuver as well as deep capacity cuts by American Airlines and United Airlines, the two carriers that dominate service at the airport.
But some observers are skeptical that the FAA's latest strategy for O'Hare will provide consumers with a lot of new flying options.
For starters, the expansion opportunities may be limited for carriers like JetBlue Airways, which gained a toehold at O'Hare last year and offers eight daily flights.
"We'll monitor industry capacity to see if there are new flight or route options for us, but any growth will be very strategic," said Bryan Baldwin, a spokesman for New York-based JetBlue. "It has to be, with oil at more than $130 per barrel."
However, Virgin America, which is vying to get into O'Hare, lauded the FAA's decision. The San Francisco-based upstart, affiliated with Richard Branson, plans to begin flying from Chicago to Los Angeles and San Francisco later this year, busy routes where its only other competition will be United and American.
"We think it gives us a process that will allow us to get in and compete, and that's all we can ask for," David Cush, chief executive officer of Virgin America, said of the FAA's decision.
The caps, limiting O'Hare to 88 arrivals each hour from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, were implemented in 2004 because of increasing gridlock at the airport. The FAA will allow the caps to expire on Oct. 31, as originally agreed to by the airlines and the city.
The airlines still will be required to provide the FAA with their scheduling plans at O'Hare every six months. The FAA could step in if too many flights were scheduled during certain periods of the day, officials said.
The new runway set to open in five months will boost O'Hare's flight capacity a small amount, by four to five additional arrivals each hour, or 66 to 70 in a day, said Sturgell, the FAA's acting administrator.
The winter flight schedules filed by the airlines contemplate only three more arrivals per hour, or about 43 in an average day.
O'Hare handles 2,600 to 2,700 total flights, arrivals and departures, daily, although the numbers fluctuate by season.
Formerly the world's busiest airport, O'Hare accommodated about 992,000 flights in 2004, a record high for the airport, according to the FAA. Last year, only about 927,000 total flights were recorded at O'Hare. The airport is on pace for a continuing decline this year, according to preliminary data.
Even so, American had asked federal regulators to keep the caps on for another year to see whether O'Hare would indeed operate more smoothly.
Delays at O'Hare and LaGuardia Airport in New York prompted American to cut more flights at those airports, said American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan.
"We hope the FAA will not allow other airlines to backfill and re-create the delay environment," Fagan said.
United did not object to the FAA's decision, a spokeswoman said.
In 2004 as well as now, O'Hare has one of the worst records for on-time performance among the largest U.S. airports. Through the first four months of this year, only 59 percent of O'Hare flights arrived on time, putting O'Hare second to last for on-time performance among the 32 busiest airports.
The FAA's decision on flight caps could hurt competition, some experts warned.
The FAA now plans to base flight operations at O'Hare on standards developed by an international consortium of airlines. These guidelines also spell out tougher standards for gaining access to an airport, creating a new hurdle for Virgin.
"It certainly is a constraint that we will have to navigate around," Cush said.
Another headache is gaining the two gates that Virgin seeks for the eight daily flights it plans for O'Hare. The City of Chicago only has one common-use gate available. To gain the second gate that it needs for its business plan, Virgin must find an airline at O'Hare that's willing to deal.
"There are plenty of empty gates at O'Hare," Cush said.