O’Hare Nearing End of Monumental Airfield Initiative

O’Hare Nearing End of Monumental Airfield Initiative
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is in the final leg of a long journey to completely reconfigure its airfield. Soon, Chicago’s primary airport will have six east-west parallel runways and two crosswind runways—and far fewer runway intersections than before.

Last November, ORD moved one major step closer to the improved airfield configuration when officials opened Runway 9C-27C, the airport’s first new runway since fall 2015. At 11,245 feet long and 200 feet wide, 9C-27C is engineered to meet FAA Design Group VI standards and can accommodate all aircraft flying today, including the A380 and Boeing 747-800.

This new north side runway was the second-last project in ORD’s monumental program to overhaul its busy—and, at one time, chronically delayed—airfield. The comprehensive reconfiguration, valued at approximately $6 billion, is the lynchpin of the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program first announced in 2001.


Project: New Runway

Location: O’Hare Int’l Airport

Owner: City of Chicago

Airport Operator: 
Chicago Dept. of Aviation

Runway: 9C-27C, on north side of terminal complex

Stats: 11,245 ft. long, 200 ft. wide; meets Aircraft Design Group VI standards

Cost: $645 million, plus $90 million in enabling projects

Opened: Nov. 2020

Component of: $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program (airfield reconfiguration accounts for approx. $6 billion of total program)

O’Hare Modernization Program Manager: DMJM Aviation Partners (AECOM)

Lead Design Engineer/Construction Support Services: HNTB Corp.

Runway Prime Construction Contractors: Walsh Construction; F.H. Pashchen

O’Hare Modernization Program Construction Manager: WSP USA

Electrical & Civil Engineering:
Milhouse Engineering

In-Pavement Lighting Bolts:
GBA Components LLC

“This is a bold plan to rebuild the airport’s airfield on top of itself,” explains Robert Hoxie, chief development officer for the Chicago Department of Aviation.

In 2019, ORD was the world’s busiest airport for total operations and the sixth busiest in the world in terms of enplaned passengers. For decades, delays at ORD caused ripple effects through the National Airspace System, impacting airports throughout the United States and beyond.

In the 1990s, FAA limited flight volume into and out of ORD to curb the negative cascading impact. And in 2001, the city of Chicago and FAA began working together to assess options for other solutions. The Chicago Department of Aviation used Total Airport and Airspace Model, a high-performance computer simulation tool, to help evaluate airfield configuration alternatives and develop a master plan, which served as the blueprint for the airfield reconfiguration. Key elements presented to the FAA included a future airport layout plan and implementation plan. An Environmental Impact Statement for the program was conducted by the FAA, concluding with a Record of Decision issued in September 2005. 

In its entirety, the airfield reconfiguration reorients ORD’s runway system into a series of six parallel (east-west) runways to eliminate by design the takeoff and landing dependencies typically associated with intersecting runways. A pair of crosswind runways will remain and were rehabilitated through this process. The new configuration also reduces the need for aircraft to taxi across active runways in front of the majority of departing aircraft, thus enhancing airfield safety.

Capital funding to construct Runway 9C-27C was part of a 2016 $1.27 billion funding authorization, comprised of proceeds from airline rates and charges, passenger facility charges and FAA Airport Improvement Program grants. “Operationally, it’s a very valuable runway,” Hoxie remarks. “But because of all of the facilities that were displaced by its construction, it was also one of the most costly projects in the program.”

As a standalone element, the cost of Runway 9C-27C is valued at approximately $645 million with an additional $90 million in enabling projects. Replacement costs for impacted tenant facilities and other enabling projects are not included in these figures.

The addition of the new runway brings balance to the airfield, after runways on the south airfield were completed years earlier. (See Milestones on Page 57 for more details.) Initially, 9C-27C will be used as a departure runway when winds are from the east and an arrival runway when winds are from the west. When the final portion of the airfield reconfiguration—extending Runway 9R-27L—is completed this December, 9C-27C will be used as an arrival runway in both directions, and 9R-27L will primarily be used for departures. This coordinated process is similar to how 10L-28R and 10C-28C currently operate in the south airfield. With equal capability on the north and south airfields, flights can be dispersed and received more evenly to meet ORD’s long-term needs for air traffic, Hoxie notes. 

Moreover, 9C-27C paves the way for quadruple simultaneous arrivals once FAA completes development of and implements the associated procedures. The ability to land aircraft on four runways at the same time could increase ORD’s hourly arrival capacity by up to 33%.

In addition to Runway 9C-27C itself, this aspect of the airfield modernization program entails:

  • full-length parallel taxiways adjacent to 9C-27C,
  • utility infrastructure,
  • building demolition,
  • new airfield lighting and signage,
  • runway and taxiway pavement,
  • navigational aids,
  • grading improvements,
  • construction phasing, and
  • storm drainage management and major collector system improvements.

Clearing the Way

Adding the new runway and parallel taxiway network required ORD to relocate several existing facilities—an effort that spanned two separate rounds of funding authorization. The first, in March 2011, provided $213 million to relocate the general aviation ramp and facility, expand the North Detention Basin, add a western taxiway connection between 9L-27R and the new runway, and extend Tank Farm Road, an airside service roadway connecting airline maintenance facilities to the passenger terminals. It also authorized partial funding for the extension and modernization of the airport transit system.

The second round, in January 2016, authorized funding to demolish flight kitchens, relocate ground equipment maintenance facilities for American Airlines and United Airlines, relocate one hangar and ramp space for each airline, and relocate employee parking lots and an aircraft rescue and firefighting station.

While construction projects regularly involve challenges, 2020 introduced significant new obstacles, most notably, a global pandemic. Deemed essential, construction of ORD’s runway continued under the proviso of strict adherence to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hoxie notes that the runway work did, in fact, experience delays due to COVID-19, even though the city prioritized keeping project teams healthy and productive when the pandemic first began impacting day-to-day life. “Our contractors, subcontractors and construction management team did a great job of workforce education and communication,” he relates.

Additionally, there were construction delays associated with challenges acquiring existing infrastructure slated for demolition. “These challenges were met with a dedicated team of program and construction managers, contractors, designers, planners and schedulers who met each challenge with a plan and delivered a high-quality product on time,” says Hoxie.

The project team leveraged technology to take some of the sting out of COVID-related constraints. For example, personnel from Walsh Construction used an imagery website and a digital collaboration portal to track and verify numerous aspects of the project without leaving the office. Project information was updated in real time and distributed to personnel via electronic tablets. Software that merged design changes and superimposed them onto existing maps was pivotal. “This enabled unforeseen or changed field conditions to be evaluated and design changes to be incorporated almost instantaneously,” Hoxie explains.

Contractors followed an aggressive phasing schedule for runway and taxiway construction in 2019 and 2020 to ultimately hit the Nov. 5, 2020 commissioning date, he adds. Naturally, that required the close and careful coordination of all stakeholders. “Any time you have that many different entities involved in a project, it’s a lot of moving parts that connect to one another in the delivery process,” Hoxie remarks. 

Coordination & Flexibility

Even on a good day, the sheer volume of aircraft movements on ORD’s airfield poses challenging operational conditions. In 2019 alone, the airport logged about 930,000 flights. Hoxie considers the recent Runway 9C-27C project an example of excellence for construction on top of a live operation. 

To minimize operational impact, the city worked closely with stakeholders to coordinate construction activities during the design phase and throughout the project. When unforeseen conditions arose, the Chicago Department of Aviation worked with FAA, airlines, air traffic control and airfield operations to schedule orchestrated closures of taxiways and runways.

Because the FAA and airlines executed portions of the construction of the overall airfield program, the project required close coordination among contractors, designers, etc. But that aspect also allowed the team to capitalize on the experience and expertise of various parties to execute all aspects effectively and efficiently, Hoxie adds. Reimbursable agreements with defined timelines and associated financial conditions also figured prominently.

Hoxie reports that construction of the new runway did not have a substantial impact on day-to-day operations at ORD, and Runways 9L-27R and 9R-27L remained active throughout the construction of Runway 9C-27C. Additionally, the airport used the project’s intersection with existing Runway 4L-22R and the associated short-term closure it required as an opportunity to perform major maintenance on that runway at the same time. Crews rebuilt more than half of 4L-22R with concrete and revived its remaining pavement with milling and an asphalt overlay. “We were able to both get economies of scale and also reduce the overall downtime with that maintenance project,” Hoxie relates. “Instead of coming back and closing it (4L-22R) five years from now, we were able to just combine the closures.”

But even with careful coordination, the construction posed challenges. “Runway 9L-27R is primarily used for arrivals; thus, throughout construction, we always had to have a way for these arrivals to cross the construction area of the future 9C-27C and get to the terminal,” Hoxie explains. In addition, countless aircraft were taxied by mechanics or towed with tugs across the construction zone to and from maintenance hangars every day. And ORD’s northeast cargo development, which opened in 2017, added even more aircraft crossings. “So there were dozens of pavement subphases and taxiway closures associated with 9C-27C construction just to maintain operations throughout,” Hoxie relates.

Almost There

As lead design engineer for Runway 9C-27C projects, HNTB Corporation has a unique perspective about how the major components of the airfield redesign fit together. Bob McAndrews, an HNTB vice president, notes that the huge scope and long timeline of the program required the entire project team to be especially cooperative and flexible. Runway 9C-27C was constructed more than a decade after the airfield reconfiguration program was launched, and throughout this time, several conditions changed. For example, HNTB stepped up to assist the Chicago Department of Aviation with locating a viable site for a replacement United Airlines employee parking lot. It also re-phased portions of the project following delays on enabling projects and expanded the original work scope to upgrade the existing North Airfield Lighting Control Vault.

“Major projects such as this take time…changes will occur,” McAndrews reasons. “Most importantly, you need to create a team that is flexible to changing conditions and ready to react quickly to anything. Your team needs to have intimate knowledge on how the city, airport and airlines operate
so you can develop realistic solutions to any challenge that arises during the life of the project.”

Looking ahead, the final phase of the airfield redesign involves a 3,293-foot extension of Runway 9R-27L, one of the airport’s original runways. Work began in early February, and the runway is slated to reopen in December at 11,260 feet long. In addition to the extension, ORD has tied in a complete maintenance cycle, taxiway resurfacings and reconfigurations. “It will be a busy year for the team,” Hoxie observes.

Major Milestones

2001: Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announces $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP)

2003: Chicago Dept. of Aviation releases Sustainable Design Manual

2005: FAA issues a Letter of Intent funding $337 million for Phase I of OMP

2008: Runway 10L-28R extension, New Runway 9L-27R & North Air Traffic Control Tower open; FAA allows mandatory flight caps to expire

2009: FAA approves OMP Completion Phase Design PFC Application & remaining OMP Noise Program PFC Application

2010: FAA issues Letter of Intent funding $410 million for OMP Completion Phase

2011: City of Chicago, American Airlines, United Airlines & FAA announce $1.17 billion funding agreement for OMP Completion Phase 2A

2013: New Runway 10C-28C opens (ORD’s first Group VI runway)

2015: New Runway 10R-28L & South Air Traffic Control Tower open; Crosswind Runway 14L-32R closes

2018: Crosswind Runway 15-33 closes; new Airline Use & Lease Agreement provides funding to complete airfield redesign projects (& 1st phase of Terminal Area Plan)

2019: Central Deicing Facility opens

2020: New Runway 9C-27C opens

2021: Runway 9R-27L extension scheduled to open


2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement

Giving back to the community is central to what Charlotte Douglas International Airport and its operator, the City of Charlotte Aviation Department, is about, and last year was no different. 

Throughout 2022, while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued our efforts to have a positive impact on the Charlotte community. Of particular note, we spent the year sharing stories of how Connections Don't Just Happen at the Terminal - from creating homeownership and employment opportunities to supporting economic growth through small-business development and offering outreach programs to help residents understand the Airport better.

This whitepaper highlights the construction projects, initiatives, programs and events that validate Charlotte Douglas as a premier airport.

Download the whitepaper: 2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement.



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