O’Hare Builds Central Deicing Facility to Improve Ground Flow

O’Hare Builds Central Deicing Facility to Improve Ground Flow
Paul Nolan
Published in: 

If Tom Petty is right and waiting really is the hardest part, winters just got easier at O’Hare International Airport (ORD). A new aircraft deicing facility is helping carriers cycle gates more quickly by moving the crucial pre-flight process away from the terminal to the west side of the airport. As a result, passengers should spend less time waiting on the tarmac and in holdrooms.

Expediting airside ground flow is more important than ever, as the Chicago airfield topped 900,000 flight operations last year, recouping the title of busiest airport in the United States. 

 “This new facility is truly a game-changer for our winter operations, and will support our airline partners with access to a new dedicated space for deicing during winter operations,” says Commissioner Jamie Rhee, of the Chicago Department of Aviation. “For one of the busiest snow airports in the world, O’Hare’s new facility gives airlines the option to deice aircraft closer to departure. Not only does this streamline our operations by freeing up gates, but it enhances safety during winter operations on one of the world’s busiest airfields.”


Project: Centralized Deicing Facility 

Location: O’Hare Int’l Airport 

Size: 835,000 sq. ft.; 20 bays

Cost: $168 million 

Funding: City-issued bonds 

Program Manager: DMJM Aviation (joint venture led by AECOM)

Design Engineers: Kimley-Horn & Associates Inc.; BPC Airport Partners

Construction Manager: WSP

Contractor: Plote Construction Inc.

Construction: 20 months 

Staffing: Operated jointly by United Airlines & American Airlines 

Maximum Capacity: Up to 20 narrow-body aircraft or 5 wide-body aircraft

Noteworthy Features: State-of-the-art lighting system that directs aircraft into & out of the pads; glycol diversion system that collects & stores spent deicing fluid for recycling

Depending on the timing and severity of ORD’s weather, crews sometimes deice thousands of aircraft in a single month. 

After 20 months of constructions, the new central deicing facility opened in late December, just in time for the bulk of the 2018-19 winter season. It is operated jointly by ORD’s two hub airlines, United and American. 

Kieran Sheridan, chief operating officer of the Chicago Department of Aviation, notes that the new strategy is designed to dramatically enhance gate utilization. “Historically, there had been two ways to deice at O’Hare: at or near the gate,” explains Sheridan. “Either way causes congestion, because that gate is not available to use for other inbound aircraft. This frees the gate up entirely.”

Increasing Safety & Efficiency

Aircraft access ORD’s new deicing facility on a recently completed common-use taxiway system that connects the north and south airfields. Both projects are components of the broader O’Hare Modernization Program, which has delivered new runways and increased airfield capacity by more than 50% since launching in 2001. 

With a footprint of roughly 835,000 square feet—about the size of 17 football fields—the $168 million facility is the largest of its kind in the nation. Airline controllers in a new four-story ramp tower direct pilots into and out of the facility, and then turn aircraft over to FAA air traffic controllers as they exit. The facility can accommodate up to 20 narrow-body airplanes or five wide-body airplanes at the same time. United and American have eight bays each, and there are four additional bays for other carriers.

“The CDF (central deicing facility) makes things much safer for personnel on the ground, because they have so much more room on the new deicing pad. They’re not working in a congested area,” notes Sheridan.

Crews operate the same deicing trucks they previously used at the gates. Sheridan explains that the project team opted against outfitting the facility with built-in booms to spray deicing fluid, because that would have limited the number of aircraft that can fit between the booms. 

To help meet the airport’s sustainability goals, the large deicing pad is sloped to trench drains, so the glycol-water mixture sprayed onto planes flows into a diversion structure and is captured in a 40,000-gallon storage tank. The fluid is later recycled and sold on the secondary market.

Looking ahead, ORD installed the infrastructure needed to eventually deploy a deicing pad management system, which will be procured and installed by the airlines. The system will feature message boards that display the aircraft type, destination and position number. It will also include signs and an updated lighting control system to maximize operational efficiency.

Carriers Were Key

The airport worked with American and United to plan and execute the project, but all 50+ passenger airlines that operate at ORD use the central deicing facility. 

Design engineers Kimley-Horn and BPC Airport Partners were tasked with meeting the goals of the airport and not one but two hub carriers. “Coordinating with all stakeholders was a unique and exciting challenge,” says Jenni Morsches, a Kimley-Horn project engineer. “This project included frequent communication with both airlines to deliver a successful finished product.” 

Sheridan notes that the hub airlines display a high level of professionalism and share the airport’s goal of providing passengers with world-class service. “We continue to meet with their senior management, and I’ve been delighted with the collaboration,” he remarks. 

Executives from American and United cite coordination and compromise as essential elements of making the new facility a reality. “We are elated that the central deicing facility, which American first proposed more than five years ago, has come to fruition, bringing major benefits for our customers and the airport as a whole,” says Franco Tedeschi, American Airlines vice president at ORD. “Our deicing team is the best in the business and takes great pride in ensuring we get customers on their way safely and quickly during Chicago’s challenging winter weather. The new deicing facility will allow us to do just that.”

In addition to expediting aircraft operations during cold weather, well-designed centralized deicing facilities help airports process excess glycol in a more sustainable manner, which has become a trend in the industry. Beyond the new facility at ORD, Kimley-Horn is currently working on similar projects at Memphis International and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. “Each airport has specific goals when planning and constructing deice facilities,” notes Morsches. “We apply the knowledge and experience from previous facilities to current and future projects.” 

At ORD, the central deicing facility will not just be a wintertime asset. The airport plans to use it during the offseason to provide staging for aircraft on ground holds during inclement warm weather. “One of the things we’re very short of is concrete,” Sheridan explains. “It hasn’t been determined how we’ll allocate space during non-snow events, but clearly, we’re not going to be short of pavement to park airplanes. We’ll be one of the best-prepared airports in the country when the need comes due to weather events that cause flight diversions.” 


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