The Unfriendly Skies

Airport politics besiege O'Hare

Have the friendly skies ever been so turbulent around here?

Last week, city officials including Mayor Richard M. Daley touched down at O’Hare on a Boeing 757 dubbed United Runway 1 to commemorate the opening of the first new runway there in 40 years. Then the mayor had to face questions about United and American Airlines officials calling the expansion project “premature and inappropriate” in paperwork filed with the FAA.

Today, Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitchwrites that United and American “have steadily reduced their presence in Chicago as they shifted flights to smaller aircraft and other hubs due to fierce competition, high operating costs and chronic congestion.”

Yet, both airlines have steadfastly opposed a third airport in Peotone that might create more competition but most certainly would reduce congestion and possibly even operating costs.

Meanwhile, Daley pushes on with O’Hare expansion that isn’t likely to reduce congestion even as, according to Hilkevitch, “flying at O’Hare has been in decline for much of this decade.”

But if flying out of O’Hare is so bad, why is Virgin America having such a hard time setting up camp there? “Despite the slump in air travel, Virgin America wants to get into O'Hare but can't,” the Tribunewrites in an editorial today. “It has landing rights but hasn't been able to lease gates. United and American have reduced passenger capacity at O'Hare by more than 20 percent since 2000. They have gates to spare, but they control leasing rights to those gates until 2018 and they aren't about to welcome a feisty competitor. Making room for Virgin and other competitive threats at O'Hare won't make United and American happy. It is, however, in the best interests of Chicago and passengers.”

Crain’s concurs this morning in its own editorial: “The long-standing duopoly at O'Hare International Airport is hurting travelers more than ever. United Airlines and American Airlines, which control nearly 90% of traffic at O'Hare, are raising fares while they cut flights at the airport.”

In its news pages, Crain’sreports that “Just as O'Hare International Airport opens its first new runway in nearly four decades, another round of flight cuts is on the horizon . . . For United, the largest carrier at O'Hare and one heavily dependent on business customers, it also raises the specter of more job losses and shrinking profit prospects but no price relief for travelers.”

More bad news, then, for United in particular: “A sharp drop in the number of business travelers in September bodes poorly for future revenue growth in the airline industry, according to the latest data from the International Air Transport Association,” McClatchy/Tribune reports.

So to summarize: the city is plowing ahead with an expensive O’Hare expansion that the airlines don’t seem to want and doesn’t seem to be warranted by market projects; the major airlines are cutting jobs and raising fares while putting a foot on smaller airlines who seem to have a better business model; and the public is paying the price on both ends.

At least there is this little miracle, alsoreported in the Tribune today: “For the first time in memory, airfares are falling rather than rising as the holiday travel season approaches.

“Prices for flights from Chicago to other U.S. cities during the year-end holidays have plunged 25 percent, to an average of $264 round trip, during the past six weeks, according to”

So fly now, or forever hold your peace.

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