It was a rude awakening for neighborhoods near O’Hare International Airport when a new east-west flight pattern launched and caused a crescendo of jet noise close to a decade ago.
Sleepless residents demanded relief, with emotions running so high in 2016 that an O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission committee meeting that convened to solve the problem adjourned amid a shouting match.
Now that same group is finalizing an unprecedented overnight runway rotation intended to evenly distribute the din around the region.
After years of logistics and negotiations, there’s a “high level of confidence” in the consensus plan, said Karyn Robles, chair of the ONCC’s Fly Quiet Committee.
“Noise has a significant impact on our residents’ quality of life but I think this process has been really collaborative. One of our goals is to disperse noise around the airport to the greatest extent possible so that everyone will share a bit of the burden. (Ultimately) we’re putting forward a plan that makes things better than they are today.”
The committee “was composed of members that are on all four sides of the airport. And it’s one of the reason why they have taken their deliberations so seriously — because they recognize this is for the regional benefit,” Chicago Department of Aviation Deputy Commissioner Aaron Frame said.
It’s not a done deal yet. The proposal first goes to the ONCC for a vote on Aug. 17. If approved, the department of aviation will forward it to the Federal Aviation Administration for a review, expected to take more than a year.
How will the overnight rotation work?
“We’ve developed a 12-week runway rotation schedule,” Robles said, using four of O’Hare’s longest parallel east/west runways and two diagonal ones.
The plan alternates from the north airfield, to the south airfield and then to the crosswind runways.
A proposed overnight runway rotation plan for O’Hare International Airport was approved by an O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission committee in June and goes to the full commission soon. This is one illustration of runway and flight paths under the plan.
– Courtesy of Chicago Department of Aviation
For example, “in Week 1, the south airfield communities would be getting relief from the noise. In Week 2, the north airfield gets relief. And, in Week 3 we move to the crosswinds so we’re trying to balance the noise,” explained Robles, Schaumburg’s transportation director.
Two runways at the far north and far south borders of O’Hare, with air traffic control towers that close at night, are not in the rotation.
The existing Fly Quiet program deploys four runways with air traffic controllers determining which ones are used. One issue is that sometimes pilots with heavy aircraft opt for O’Hare’s lengthiest runways, which means a wakeful night for communities in the flight path, including Bensenville.
The new plan will designate “a long runway in the part of the airfield where we’re concentrating noise” for a given week, Robles said.
Another tweak is that planners are offering two different departure headings (or angles) for planes taking off at night on Runways 9-Right/27-Left and 10-Left/28-Right as part of the rotation.
This allows for additional sound distribution, but it may mean unanticipated nighttime noise for a week in some neighborhoods.
The flow of landings and departures also would switch from west to east each week.
For perspective, Chicago switched from diagonal runways to a mainly parallel system in 2013 to improve safety and efficiency. It brought an unexpected racket to some suburbs, including Elmhurst and Des Plaines, who protested. Now both communities have representatives on the Fly Quiet Committee. Several rotations were tested between 2016 and 2021.
FQC members voted unanimously for the rotation in June.
Dan Dwyer with the Fair Allocation in Runways group thinks relief is possible but not probable. “The plan the committee approved is only predictable and equitable for residents if pilots use the designated runways, the wind blows the right direction, and overnight demand doesn’t continue to increase,” he said.
But asked about their decision Thursday, “we worked hard on this and finally came to an agreement. I support it,” Des Plaines Alderman and committee member Malcolm Chester said.
The proposal “could not be more fair for all the surrounding communities,” Elmhurst Alderman Bob Dunn and FQC vice chairman noted. “At night, we will rotate between north, south and diagonal airfields, and between east and west flow.”
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