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Daley's Last Airline Battle

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The mayor's final negotiating position with the airlines.

Someone had to blink in the bitter ongoing dispute between the City of Chicago and the major airlines over the funding of O’Hare expansion.

On Monday, that someone turned out to be the City of Chicago.

With just two months to go before he leaves office, Mayor Daley announced an agreement with the airlines, which guarantees airline backing of a single new runway and associated projects,  including a new control tower. 

The airlines agreed to provide about $300 million.  But the remainder of the project, including the complex runway 9-center will be put on hold, with only a promise that the two sides will return to the bargaining table in 2013.

In other words, completion of the project, known as OMP,  is now, officially, mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s problem.

“This is a wonderful day for Chicago,” Daley insisted at a morning press conference where he was joined by aviation, political, and civic leaders.  “You have to think of the future. You don’t build for the present.”

The mayor is able to claim victory in keeping O’Hare construction going, in the face of an airline lawsuit which threatened to put a halt to the entire project.  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he entered the negotiations personally, joined by Illinois’ two U.S. Senators, to prevent that from happening.

“This is the largest airfield modernization project in America,” LaHood reminded the assembled press.  “This is the next generation of transportation for our kids, and grandkids.”

United Airlines chief Jeff Smisek made no bones about the fact that his company and American Airlines had balked at paying for a project which, with current demands, they do not need. 

“Do we need this runway now?  Of course not,” Smisek said.  “But we understand that with time, we will.”

Asked what made him change his mind, he motioned to the Transportation Secretary and said, “the gentleman standing behind me helped me change my mind.”

The squabble between the airlines and the City of Chicago created strange bedfellows.  United and American, normally staunch competitors, joined forces in their legal fight against the city’s desire to put them on the hook for future construction.  In the end, they also jointly agreed to the compromise.

“As an industry, we have a reputation, often well deserved, of not being able to work well together,” said American’s Will Risk.  “This was not one of those cases.”

Under the original timetable of the OMP, runway 9-center was to be completed next, with runway 10-right, far to the south, to be finished in a latter phase of the project.  Now that schedule has been flipped.  The southern runway will be completed next, with 9-center subject to future negotiations.

“We will continue with the dialogue, to then determine what is the appropriate time to move forward,” said aviation commissioner Rosemarie Andolino, saying the two sides have agreed to resume negotiations no later than March of 2013.

Reminded that in every negotiation someone gives something up, Daley said, “I did, but I’m not going to mention it.”

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