Historic O’Hare Airfield Reconfiguration Reaches Finale

Historic O’Hare Airfield Reconfiguration Reaches Finale
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

“This is a major milestone for the national aviation system.”

Robert Hoxie, chief development officer for the Chicago Department of Aviation, doesn’t mince words about the importance of completing the O’Hare Modernization Program. Since it was first announced in 2001, the $8 billion program has been steadily transforming the airfield at O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to improve safety and efficiency and reduce delays that were known to cause ripples throughout the National Airspace System.

The epic project was fully realized by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Commissioner of Aviation Jamie L. Rhee in December 2021, when the Chicago Department of Aviation opened the final piece of the program: the rehabilitation and extension of Runway 9R-27L.


Project: Airfield Reconfiguration

Location: O’Hare International Airport

Owner: City of Chicago

Operator: Chicago Dept. of Aviation

Project Name: O’Hare Modernization Program

Cost: $8 billion ($6 billion on runways, taxiways and enabling projects)

Program Manager: AECOM

Construction Manager: WSP USA

Final Component: Extension to Runway 9R-27L

Cost: $334 million

Construction: Oct. 2019-Dec. 2021

Lead Design Prime: Chicago Aviation Runway Designers Joint Venture

JV Lead, Project Management, Civil Design: RS&H

Structural & Utility Design: Rubinos & Mesia Engineers

Drainage Design & Permitting: Environmental Design Int’l

Grading & Pavement Design: Atkins

Electrical Design: Kimley Horn

Geotechnical Services: GeoServices

Construction Contractor Prime: Walsh Group, FH Paschen

The 16-year continuous development program encompassed the construction of four new runways, extensions to two existing runways, construction of two new airport traffic control towers and the relocation of numerous facilities. It reconfigures the ORD runway system into a series of six parallel (east-west) runways, three on the north airfield and three on the south, removing takeoff and landing dependencies typically associated with intersecting runways. Additionally, the airfield reconfiguration includes two crosswind runways and removes the need for taxiing aircraft to cross active runways, thus enhancing airfield safety.

Key program elements include:

  • Extension of Runway 10L-28R (completed Sept. 25, 2008)
  • New Runway 9L-27R (completed Nov. 20, 2008)
  • New Runway 10C-28C (completed Oct. 17, 2013)
  • New Runway 10R-28L (completed Oct. 15, 2015)
  • New Runway 9C-28C (completed Nov. 5, 2020)

Three crosswind runways (14L-32R, 14R-32L and 18-36) were also decommissioned over the above timeframe as part of this effort, reducing the number of runway crossings from six down to two.

“O’Hare’s importance in the aviation system cannot be overstated,” notes Hoxie. In 2019, it was the world’s busiest airport in total operations, and the sixth busiest in the world in terms of enplaned passengers. One of the primary goals of the O’Hare Modernization Program is to create a well-balanced airfield to meet future demand requirements, he explains. Since the beginning of the sweeping program, system impact delays have been reduced by 64% when comparing 2003-2008 to 2009-2020, according to Chicago Department of Aviation officials.

Last Piece

With the opening of Runway 9R-27L, the final airfield layout provides a mirror set of runways between the north and south airfields. “Runway 9R-27L, like its counterpart in the south (Runway 10L-28R), will be extremely useful for departures due to their proximity to the terminal facilities,” Hoxie explains.

The Runway 9R-27L project extended the runway by 3,593 feet and shifted the 27L threshold 300 feet to the west to align with new Runway 9C-27C, which opened in 2020. In addition to the extension, the existing runway pavement received a total rehabilitation.

Design for the project was performed by Chicago Aviation Runway Designers Joint Venture, comprised of RS&H, Rubinos & Mesia Engineers, Environmental Design International and Atkins.

Nate Otto, project manager with RS&H, notes that even though the 9R-27L project was technically the extension and rehabilitation of an existing runway, it had the complexity of building a new runway due to new ILS systems, Navaids, electrical systems, lighting and signage.

Work on Runway 9R-27L was divided into four construction packages that were carefully coordinated with other projects occurring on and around the busy airport. During the construction of Runway 9C-27C, some connecting taxiways included in the Runway 9R-27L scope were required earlier than the runway extension to support aircraft movement from the terminal core to Runway 9C-27C. These taxiways on the west side of the airport were constructed in 2018 and 2019 to support Runway 9C-27C. Once funding was approved for the Runway 9R-27L project, the runway was constructed within two construction packages. 

As the extension to 9R-27L was the last piece of the massive airfield reorganization, much of the preparatory work needed to carry out that project had already been completed for previous phases of the O’Hare Modernization Program. For instance, construction of Runway 9C-27C required the relocation of several legacy facilities within the footprint of the proposed runway and associated taxiway network. Those relocations took place in two phases associated with two rounds of airline funding in March 2011 and January 2016.

Choreographed Construction

As with any construction project at ORD, high priority was placed on minimizing impact to airport operations. “Every airfield project at O’Hare must be carefully planned and phased to limit disruptions to the operations of the airfield,” emphasizes Hoxie. All construction work on the west side of the airfield for the runway extension was planned and executed without any closures of the existing Runway 9R-27L.

Phasing plans were developed through a series of forums that brought together stakeholders to coordinate long-, medium- and short-term construction activities. Key stakeholders include FAA; airlines; Chicago Department of Aviation Operations, Facilities, Safety and Security groups; the Chicago Fire Department and utility companies, as well as all of the project partners. “Everyone’s roles are integral to the overall success of the project,” Hoxie states.

A group of decisionmakers known as the Construction Implementation Steering Group was formed to proactively coordinate with stakeholders at project inception and during the early design phases. This role then moved to another forum, where all ongoing programs were coordinated under the banner of the Construction Operations Working Group. Finally, the day-to-day coordination took place at STOP, or Short-Term Operation Planning. 

“These forums have proven to be very effective in coordinating the construction needs without any measurable impacts to the airport’s operations,” Hoxie reports. This also includes working closely with Air Traffic Control and Chicago Department of Aviation Operations and Scheduling to orchestrate closures of taxiways and runways.

“During the design phase, it was critical to engage all key stakeholders to make sure that everyone’s expectations were going to be met and to get the necessary input and buy-in,” says Otto. Phasing and design meetings were held weekly to facilitate the needed coordination.

After Runway 9C-27C was opened, 9R-27L was closed in February 2021 to allow for resurfacing and the installation of electrical components. Hoxie explains that this work was too extensive to be completed with only nighttime closures, because the 27L threshold was displaced 300 feet and the realignment of the lighting fixtures required major adjustments.

Necessary aircraft movements were discussed to maintain access around the airfield, and new taxiways opened before the closure of an existing taxiway that needed to be reconstructed
or removed. 

Runway 9R-27L’s location, in the middle of the busy airfield, required several carefully planned phases, says Tony Esposito, project manager with Kimley-Horn. “Most air traffic arriving or departing from the other three north airfield runways has to traverse across Runway 9R,” explains Esposito, noting that this includes aircraft accessing the northwest maintenance facilities for United Airlines and American Airlines, and traffic associated with the northeast cargo development. “So when we were looking at the rehabilitation of the existing pavement as well as the extension of the runway, we needed to be able to maintain multiple taxi routes through the site, and that required an extensive construction safety and phasing plan.”

There were several other projects occurring at ORD at the same time, which required constant communication with design engineers across all programs. Esposito notes that pavement construction isn’t the only phasing that takes place on a project like this. “I think that’s the easy part,” he remarks. “The difficulty is phasing the utilities that need to remain active at all times through the program. I couldn’t tell you how many hundreds of hours we spent going through different phasing scenarios just to keep different utilities active.” 

Knowing and understanding the phasing implications across the entire airport campus is critical to building a successful program, he adds. “All utilities needed to be operational at all times. That included FAA facilities as well as water, main drainage and sanitary sewer that service other facilities and cross the runway project limits.” Esposito says, adding that close coordination with all stakeholders throughout the project ensured any potential conflict was quickly identified and adequately resolved.

Construction of the recently completed Runway 9C-27C was also occurring simultaneously to the north. “That added some additional complexity from a coordination standpoint,” notes Otto.

In general, ORD maximizes the amount of work delivered during any runway shut downs by scheduling improvements that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish within a nighttime runway closure. For this project, that meant upgrading existing electrical systems with new fixtures and cabling. Any adjustments to traffic patterns on the airfield are communicated to the wider airport community with alerts and exhibits that highlight affected areas. This information is also communicated at employee training.

Community Commitment

Hoxie notes that the airport is always cognizant of its impact on neighboring communities. “[With the new airfield layout], the Chicago Department of Aviation will continue to collaborate with regional leaders on constructive dialogue to ensure that no community takes the brunt of runway noise,” he says. “We strive toward a more balanced North and South Airfield and a more balanced East and West air traffic flow with the new and extended runways, allowing more options for arrivals and departure.”

Toward that end, the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission was established to oversee noise management efforts. In cooperation with area communities, the Chicago Department of Aviation developed the Interim Fly Quiet program as a step toward greater noise balance in the region. “This was the first time that a community-driven process like this had been undertaken, and it has become a gold standard for airport community relations across the country,” says Hoxie. With the comprehensive airfield reconfiguration complete, the Chicago Department of Aviation is now working with the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission to develop a permanent Fly Quiet program.  

On the subject of sustainability, Otto notes that the Chicago Department of Aviation incorporated several different measures throughout the O’Hare Modernization Program to reuse materials, reduce emissions and reduce waste material transported offsite. For example, bituminous millings from the 9R-27L project were used as base material for access roads, shoulders and staging areas, thus reducing the need for virgin materials.

Looking Back

One major lesson Hoxie says his team consistently learned throughout the course of the overall O’Hare Modernization Program is to “plan for the unknown.”

While it’s impossible to plan for all unknowns, construction contracts for various projects addressed general categories of common onsite surprises, such as unknown utilities, environmental issues and last-minute coordination items necessary for runway commissioning. Hoxie notes that despite challenges posed by unknowns, the project team was able to complete the extensive repair/replacement of approximately 8,000 feet on 9R-27L while staying on schedule. “This project completes the vision of the entire O’Hare Modernization Program,” says Hoxie, closing an important chapter in the major airport’s history.


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