O’Hare Airport’s renovation plan gets environmental green light

The city of Chicago has cleared a hurdle in its plans to redevelop O’Hare International Airport as federal aviation officials determined the proposed overhaul of terminals would not have a “significant” negative environmental impact, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Monday.

Joined at O’Hare by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Lightfoot said passing the environmental impact report was a “key milestone” toward the city’s now $12.1 billion plan to bring a state-of-the-art global terminal, dozens of new gates and several additional concourses to O’Hare.

“This approval was essential for us to move forward on our next big phase of modernizing this airport,” Lightfoot said.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the so-called O’Hare 21 project is tearing down Terminal 2 — the oldest terminal — and replacing it with a new Global Terminal. In order to receive any licenses or permit, the Federal Aviation Administration conducts an environmental assessment that evaluates any risks from the construction proposal.

This FAA evaluation has been in progress since 2018. The report also stated that the plans should reduce taxi times, leading to decreased emissions, and that the plans would not affect historic parts of the terminal, in accordance with the Illinois Historic Preservation Office.

Lightfoot said the first phase of construction will involve building two satellite concourses for Terminal 2′s existing operations, including Air Canada, United Airlines, JetBlue and formerly Delta Air Lines, which relocated to Terminal 5 in October. According to the plans for the O’Hare 21 project, the satellite concourses ensure the airport would not lose gate capacity while Terminal 2 is being rebuilt.

Construction can then begin for the Global Terminal, which will double the amount of space in Terminal 2 and integrate the international and domestic operations of hub carriers United and American Airlines. According to a news release from Lightfoot, the satellite concourses are estimated to be completed in 2027 and 2028. The Global Terminal project has a target completion of 2030.

In addition to rebuilding Terminal 2, O’Hare’s terminal area plan also includes a $1.3 billion renovation of Terminal 5 to increase its gate capacity by 25%. Terminal 5 used to be reserved for international flights, but now houses domestic carriers Southwest and Delta.

Terminal 5 is in the final months of its expansion, as seven new gates opened over the summer with another three on the horizon, said Chicago Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee. Construction also has begun on a six-story parking garage at Terminal 5. Other aspects of the terminal area plan include upgrading amenities and facilities and reducing gate and taxiing wait times to improve the passenger experience, Lightfoot said.

Both O’Hare and Midway ranked “below average” in passenger satisfaction compared to U.S. airports similar in size, amid declines across airports in North America, according to a study by J.D. Power released in September. But among the biggest airports in the nation, only one airport was ranked lower than O’Hare, New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport. In 2021, O’Hare was at the bottom of the list.

The construction plans for new terminals will create more than 26,000 jobs to be filled by union workers, said Lightfoot, who is seeking union support in her bid for reelection early next year.

“This is about making sure that we remain competitive on a global stage, that we continue to build great jobs here so people can live a good life, and that starts with making sure that our friends in organized labor have the opportunity to participate in the building of this next phase,” Lightfoot said.

The O’Hare project has received several avenues of federal aid, including funds from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. Buttigieg also said that he would “not be surprised to see a lot of strong applications” from O’Hare for grant funding from the federal Airport Improvement Program.

The renovation at O’Hare was in 2018 set to cost $8.5 billion. But the current capital program price tag is approximately $12.1 billion, which accounts for updated project estimates and escalated costs permitted under the 2018 agreement.

Buttigieg, with a known soft spot for O’Hare as it marks the site where he got engaged, appeared with Lightfoot as part of a Monday visit to Chicago where the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also met with air traffic controllers and workers. Buttigieg also was scheduled to visit the Chicago campus of the Aviation Institute of Maintenance for a town hall with students alongside Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines, which recently announced a partnership with AIM to address fears of a future shortage of airplane mechanics.

“We’re living in a time when folks understand more and more of the importance of our airports for supply chains, as well as for passenger travel,” Buttigieg said. “And we’ve got to make sure both of those are running as efficiently as possible — that’s part of what this new terminal’s going to be part of.”