Monday, November 24, 2008

O'Hare Airport revenue dries up

This is bad news for Mayor Richard M. Daley's stubborn plans to expand O'Hare Airport. This story also describes how other cities have scaled back airport expansion plans in the face of industry uncertainty. But not Daley.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

O’Hare expansion is on life support

Is the major airlines’ rejection of further O’Hare Airport expansion a death knell for the $15-billion-plus project, or is it, as the Daley administration asserts, just a hiccup in the process, caused, in part, by the current economic downturn?

Predictions are risky, but without the airlines shoveling billions of dollars into the expansion, as the Daley administration was counting on, it’s hard to see where the money will come from. Except from you, the passenger, in the form of exorbitantly higher taxes.

Chicago had trouble enough overcoming the many objections for Phase I of the expansion project, which included the new northern runway opened today with great fanfare. Financing always has been a problem, and the airlines never committed to funding Phase II. Now, the airlines have gone even further, by telling the Federal Aviation Administration that the expansion should be stopped.

Rosemarie Andolino, the city’s director of the project, ridiculously claimed that the airlines refusal was nothing new, and if she believes that, she should look at the loss in value of the O’Hare bonds after the story came out this morning. The city several years ago engineered an increase in the seat tax charged to passengers to help fund the project, but the tax could never produce enough revenues to complete the project, even amortized over the next generation.

The airlines’ objections also re-open a new front in the controversy: the technical viability of the project. Specifically, they ridiculed the idea of a new terminal on the airport’s western boundary as “ill-conceived,” reflecting the opponents’ criticism. Chicago never explained—even to the airlines, we now discover—how the new western terminal, sitting in isolation miles from the main terminals—would work. Extension of the airport’s people mover between the terminals? If so, how much would that cost? And why isn’t that cost included in the overall project cost estimate? And where would the money come from?

That’s just one of the important questions that the city skips over. For example: the real restriction on O’Hare capacity is the crowded airspace serving O’Hare and Midway airports. That’s one of the reasons that the FAA and other aviation experts said that airline capacity expansion only can realistically come from a new south suburban airport. Chicago never has explained how it would expand the sky to accommodate the unrealistic number of flights it maintains the expansion could support.

Or this: Where would the promised, new western entrance go to accommodate the long-sought completion of the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway—now a freeway to nowhere—and a long-promised “ring road” around the airport. Project maps have never clearly shown the new route; the administration has failed to answer convincingly the most fundamental question of whether it would be on or off airport property. By almost everyone’s reckoning, the airport has no room for it. If it goes off the airport, it would lead to even greater dislocations of homes and businesses. No money is shown in the plan for this either.

Andolino laughably asserted that the inauguration of the new runway has proven expansion opponents wrong. If anything, it has revealed the dishonesty of the Daley administration: The new runway, the city originally asserted, would increase airport capacity. It won’t. About the only thing it has a chance of accomplishing, according to the FAA, is delay reduction delays, by an unimpressive average 30 seconds.

Too many obstacles, financial, technical and otherwise, stand in the way of the completion of the vast expansion project. Any rational person would say that the project is, or at least should be, dead, dead, dead. But then again, the project was never rational to start with.

Who will put Bensenville back together again?

The east side of Bensenville, a working class suburb, has been virtually destroyed for an expansion of O’Hare Airport that looks now like it will never happen.

So, will Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and his city pay to restore what was once the largest and most successful community of affordable housing in DuPage County? They should, but don’t count on it.

What Daley and his greedy cronies did to Bensenville, a community that had minded its own business for more than 100 years, borders on the criminal. Daley and airport planners knew that they did not need to destroy hundreds of Bensenville homes for years, until later phases of O’Hare expansion were scheduled. Yet, they launched an unprecedented political, economic and government attack that exceeded bounds of decency.

To review: Bensenville, with DuPage County, state and federal assistance, had successfully nurtured this neighborhood of hundreds of homes and businesses. It was modest neighborhood, yes, but it was a viable, clean and healthy neighborhood, exactly what affordable housing advocates (Daley counts himself among them) say that is needed in the job-rich northwest suburbs. But Bensenville sits southwest of O’Hare Airport, in the path of one of the unprecedented, unworkable and dangerous six parallel runways that Daley wanted to install. Daley wanted it at all costs.

The costs, of course, were paid by us taxpayers.

Standing in the way of Daley’s blind hunger to take control of east Bensenville, years before necessary, was long-time Bensenville President John Geils, and his Elk Grove Village ally, Mayor Craig Johnson. When all around them—once proud expansion opponents in neighboring suburbs in the Suburban O’Hare Commission—were being picked off one-by-one by Daley, the two stood firm, together.

Among the obstacles to Daley’s covetedness, was a serious legal one. To obtain the Bensenville properties, Chicago—as O’Hare’s owner—had to threaten condemnation. Trouble was, Bensenville was a separate municipality, in another county at that, and one municipality didn’t have the legal power to condemn property in another one. Long story short: Daley and his allies (in what Tribune columnist John Kass calls the state’s bi-partisan combine of greedy and corrupt politicians and special interests) simply passed a law, no problem. Now Chicago could cross borders and raid another town’s homes. And, by the way, any challenges to that authority would have to be heard in a Cook County court, where the Chicago Machine pretty much control who gets appointed to the bench.

Daley could have held off the acquisition, but in what only can be a fit of spite brought on by a small-town mayor challenging his power, he proceeded. One by one, Chicago picked off the homeowners and renters, many who had become resigned to their fate by the constant barrage of negativity in the media and elsewhere about the future of their neighborhood. Chicago’s intent was to create momentum, by buying and tearing down enough homes to create near-panic selling. In Chicago, that’s called blockbusting, and it is illegal when real estate agents use it to flip a racially changing neighborhood. But apparently it’s okay when Daley wants to use it for his “greater good.”

Bensenville has refused to issue demolition permits to Chicago to tear down the homes it owns and turn the area into something akin to a bombed-out city. Chicago has sued the village to permit the teardowns and the question is now in the courts.

That might have been the most egregious attack on Bensenville and Geils, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Geils faced a multitude of personal attacks and once in a re-election campaign, he was ruled off the ballot for the most minor of technical errors. Still, he won by a write-in vote. In Springfield, the Legislature and others have targeted various Geils programs, such as combining the police and fire departments (among the handful of Illinois communities that have combined departments, only Bensenville was targeted). Daley’s strategy was to isolate Geils and Johnson, to make them appear to be small-town quacks that were standing in the way of progress. Much of the media and the public bought this slander.

Geils and Johnson now have a taste of justification. The communities hired some of the most knowledgeable and independent aviation experts in the nation, including a former acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, to analyze Daley’s expansion plans. Their criticisms of the plan now have been echoed by the airlines, which want out of future expansion plans, portions of what they called “ill-conceived.” United, in a letter to the FAA last summer, said, “Unfortunately, the city did not accept the more modest and financially prudent approach.”

Could that have been the approach that Geils and Johnson have long proposed: a “modest” O’Hare expansion that made more sense without the huge disruptions caused by Daley’s plan, along with a south suburban airport? That’s what anyone who’s interested in the welfare of the region would advocate. Daley won’t.

Time to support a better alternative to O’Hare Expansion

The airlines’ stinging rebuke (see below) to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s O’Hare expansion plans leaves an obvious question:

If O’Hare expansion isn’t the answer to the crowded skies over Chicago, what is?

The answer has been out there for decades: a new south suburban airport. And fortunately, the groundwork already has been laid. A commission of Chicago suburbs won agreement from two international public works developers to design, finance, build and operate the new airport—at virtually no public cost.

Sadly, Daley and his cronies have stymied those plans, so what could have already been is still a cornfield. It now will take a major shift in political, civic and business alliances to restart the project, if it is not too late. The economic downturn and the credit crunch may have cooled the developers’ interest—which had previously remained strong despite Daley’s assault on the project.

One of the first issues that needs to be settled is: Who would control the new airport? Interest for the new airport had stagnated while Daley was pushing O’Hare expansion, until a group of southern suburbs plus O’Hare neighbors Bensenville and Elk Grove Village got the project untracked. Under the bi-partisan leadership of Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and the late Rep. Henry Hyde, the group formed a commission that was close to signing up the international developers, until Daley, seeing his cherished O’Hare jobs and contracts threatened by the competition, “put a brick on” the development.

In this, he rounded up a wide array of allies in the public and private sector, but in his most effective move, he created a competitor to the Jackson group. Will County, which had previously shown no interest in the airport, suddenly insisted that it, and not the Jackson group, had the exclusive authority to build the airport. Daley was able to work this magic because Democratic influence was growing in the previously solid Republican county, and whatever quid pro quos the powerful Democratic Chicago mayor could offer were eagerly sought and accepted there. Opposition to the Jackson plan was the price they willingly paid.

In an irrational and wasteful twist, the Illinois Legislature and the Illinois Department of Transportation, did the un-Solomon like thing and spilt the baby. Rejecting the developers who were on the doorstep and ready to begin, they gave the competing groups equal—as it were—standing to build and run the airport. Back to square one in the lengthy bureaucratic board game, the two now are seeking separate approvals from the FAA (which years ago had backed the project) and the state. So now the state has become so mired in “process” that the airport’s start is nowhere in sight—an outcome that suits Daley just fine, giving him time to make his O’Hare expansion a fait accompli.

One thing was wrong, however, with Daley’s scheme. The expansion plan was bound to fail of its own weight. He was blinded by his determination to hold on to O’Hare patronage and put too much faith in the yes-people who surrounded him, and assured him that the expansion was “doable.”

How now to re-energize the south suburban airport? The first gigantic hurdle is to get the major players who supported the expansion to admit that they were wrong. Daley might never do this, but the business, civic, media and labor community that so gladly fell in behind the mayor’s ego can perhaps turn the tide. They owe it to the body politic.

The Federal Aviation Administration, too, will have to reassert its expertise, instead of collapsing as it did before powerful political forces in the city, state and Washington that were aligned with Daley. The FAA years ago had said that the south suburban airport was the best solution, and nothing has changed to justify abandoning that position.

Now comes the hard part: Anything that happens will need state approval, and Illinois is so racked with mis- and mal-governance that it is hard to imagine rational decision-making ever happening. That state is $4 billion—almost $5 billion—in the red, and no solution is in sight. Perhaps the prospect of privately financed jobs and contracts—which will be so rare in the near future—would help them decide to back the new airport.

As for Daley, Jackson’s group had repeatedly said they would be glad to split the patronage with the mayor. It was a price they were willing to pay to move ahead with a solution that would be beneficial for the entire region. Sharing the spoils may look a bit more attractive to Daley now that the airlines have thrown a wrench into the O’Hare works. Then, again, sharing has never been one of Daley’s strong points.

Airlines at last say no to further O’Hare expansion

In a stunning reversal and a slap at Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s grandiose dream to expand O’Hare International Airport, the major carriers have rejected costly city plans for additional runways and terminals the airport.

The significance of the reversal, disclosed today by Chicago Tribune reporters Jon Hilkevitch and Julie Johnson, would be difficult to understate. In rejecting further expansion, the airlines have reversed their long-held support of Daley’s expansion plans, and now have sided with long-time critics. Among them were a former acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and other prominent airline industry experts hired by expansion opponents to analyze the plans.

Aside from vindication for the opponents, the apparent delay, if not death, of the expansion plans raises significant questions for the Chicago region, now to be honestly faced. Chief among them is the fate of the proposed south suburban airport, which has been moldering on the drawing boards, thanks in great part to Daley’s opposition.

The airline’s opposition, expressed last summer to the FAA but hidden for months by the Daley administration from public view, also raises questions about who is to blame for this multi-billion-dollar fiasco. Only one runway has been built, set to open soon, which the city long had claimed would increase capacity, but which the FAA more recently said would only decrease delays, and by only a small amount at that. The list will be long, which will be explored at some more length on these pages.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quashing low-fare competition at O’Hare

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Daily Observer

The upstart and lower-fare Virgin Airlines’ plans to initiate service at O’Hare Airport, and thus bring competition, more jobs and economic development to the Chicago area, appears jeopardized by the sweetheart deal between the Daley administration and the legacy airlines that control the airport.

Which raises the question: When will someone, especially in the business community that is so dependent on air travel, finally get mad on the lunatic ways of O’Hare Airport.

Virgin Airlines, which provides international service from both coasts, has been planning a major expansion into America’s heartland, with O’Hare as its base. But it has been stymied because it has been unable to lease gates at the airport, even though more than enough are sitting idle. Virgin said it will have to decide in a few weeks whether to cancel its O’Hare plans and look for another alternative. Meaning, I assume, another Midwest city in which to locate its hub.

The reason Virgin can’t secure one of those empty gates? Because the gates are controlled by United and American airlines, which have a lock on some 80 percent of O’Hare’s business. And how can they get away with a duopoly at O’Hare when the airline industry is supposedly deregulated?

Read more in The Chicago Daily Observer