Ambitious Makeover to Bring Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to the 21ST Century

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is undergoing a vast makeover, in an effort to bring it back higher on most performance rankings, starting with client satisfaction. 

One of the world’s busiest airports needed new runways

The city of Chicago has had one of the world’s busiest airport systems for a long time.

Chicago Midway Airport, located in the southwest of the city, was the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic, until the late 1950s. Its runways were too short for early jet aircraft, so all flights migrated to O’Hare, in the northwest, to use the longer runways and new terminals.

In 1962, O’Hare became the world’s busiest airport in 1962, a title it held for over 25 years. But the high volume of passengers also meant the airport became notoriously busy.

By 1998, when it lost the crown of world’s busiest airport – to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson – O’Hare was famously overcrowded and losing ground on most performance rankings, especially customer satisfaction.

The airport needed a radical makeover of the runway system, which began in 2005 and cost $6 billion. Work was done in 2021, significantly reducing delays and paving the way for a complete makeover of the rest of the airport — with an additional $8.5 billion investment — which will help maybe climb back up those rankings. 

Today, O’Hare has eight runways — six parallel to each other and two that run diagonally, compared to the previous parallel and intersecting ones, which increased the risk of aircraft collision and were susceptible to disruption caused by weather conditions.

“We now have the most capable runway network of any civilian airport in the world,” says Robert Hoxie, chief development officer at the Chicago Department of Aviation. “We’ve reduced delays by 65% — that’s tens of thousands of flights that are now operating on time but didn’t use to.”

A radical plan to modernize the airport was born in 2019

By 2015, the need for modernization moved to the terminal buildings, American Airlines and United approaching the city to discuss major improvements. In 2019, the idea was transformed  into O’Hare 21, a radical plan to modernize the airport and bring it into the 21st century.

The plan includes almost 100 separate projects – upgrades to parking garages, new water mains and electrical distribution systems, refurbished underground pedestrian tunnels – with the emphasis on an entire new “global” terminal, two new satellite concourses for Terminal 1, and a complete makeover of the existing Terminal 5.  

Works won’t be completed until 2028, but they will progress gradually, some being already done, as certain areas of the new Terminal 5, already opened to the public.

The terminal will no longer be focused on international flights but on carriers that are simply moving passengers to and from Chicago, including low-cost carriers like Spirit. Delta will also move here later in the fall. The upgrades include 10 new gates, a new baggage handling system and new security checkpoints.

Work started in March 2020, when the world was going into lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak, which meant that a less crowded terminal helped workers move forward more efficiently.

The new international terminal building will be Y-shaped, as the Municipal Device 

Now, O’Hare has a single international terminal, separate from the domestic one, so passengers on connecting flights have to switch terminals. 

A new terminal for international traffic is going to be built where Terminal 2, the oldest still in use, now stands. This investment will be considerably bigger: $2.2 billion.

The design of the new building is created by Chicago’s Studio ORD, the design, which won a contest, being inspired by a city icon, the Municipal Device. It’s an encircled Y symbol that represents the north and south branches of the Chicago river coming together, and can be found throughout the city on buildings, fences, lamp posts and bridges. 

The new terminal building will be Y-shaped, with a six-pointed glass skylight where the  branches meet. The roof will be clad in wood, with pleats oriented to maximize natural daylight.

“In the new Terminal 2, called O’Hare Global Terminal, passengers will be able to clear US Customs, return to the secure area and be only minutes away from their departing gate — without needing to ride a train to a different terminal or tow bags across the airfield,” says Hoxie.

At 2.2 million square feet, the Global Terminal will be 75% bigger than the current Terminal 2, and one of the largest in the US. Many amenities, such as nursing rooms, yoga studios, and a variety of food and beverage options are going to be included.

The new terminal is going to have a new baggage handling system that boasts automated storage for 5,000 bags, and more flexible gates, able to be reconfigured for smaller and wider aircrafts. At the end of the entire project, gate capacity will increase by 25%. 

Free Nintendo ‘Switch On the Go’ lounge in O’Hare

Work on the new Global Terminal, as well as the new two satellite concourses, won’t start for several years, since  regulatory and environmental assessments must be cleared first, and replacement aircraft gates must be built to replace the ones in use at Terminal 2, before it gets demolished. 

In the meantime, work will continue on the refurbishment of Terminal 5, which will be completed in late 2023.

Offering new amenities in an effort to earn customer satisfaction has already started at the O’Hare. Two years ago, Nintendo officially opened its free Nintendo ‘Switch On the Go’ lounge in O’Hare International Airport. The pop-up airport lounge gives travelers the chance to play video games on televisions or the handheld Nintendo Switch console to help pass the time before and between flights. Games available include Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Party, Super Mario Odyssey, and Tetris 99. It comes as a refreshing change for frequent flyers, since the only form of gaming usually available to customers comes in the form of casinos.

Best hotels to plan your next trip to Chicago 

Making O’Hare more efficient and modern, with all the necessary amenities for both customers and staff, is certainly good news for the community. After all, the O’ Hare remains the heart of the city, which has risen in the past few years to the top as a major destination for business, travel, family vacations, and more. Wrigley Field, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Millenium Park, Lake Michigan, and Navy Pier are just a few of the many entertaining places that Chicago has to offer. If you plan to enjoy a trip to Chicago in the near future, check out some of the best hotels to book. And if you are from Chicago, and somebody you love is a pilot, maybe you would want to make their life easier, while they are waiting for the O’Hare revamping to be done, like everybody else in the Windy City. Here are the 17 best gifts for pilots you can get right now, including the best picks for on-duty, off-duty, and pilot’s everyday lifestyle, guaranteed to bring them the desired comfort and joy. 

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