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Sat, Jan 17, 2004

Former FAA Senior Exec Flunks O'Hare Modernization Plan

Del Balzo: "The O'Hare Modernization Plan is in serious trouble."

Chicago's plan to expand O'Hare International Airport -- the most complex and controversial airport development issue in civil aviation today -- is so fundamentally flawed that it should be scrapped, the former acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration said Friday.

"Chicago's plan is in serious trouble. It will cost too much, will not produce the claimed benefits and will fail to meet FAA safety standards," said Joseph Del Balzo, who served as acting administrator at the FAA in 1994. The O'Hare plan would not just fail to reduce delays, but would actually increase them at the nation's most pivotal airport, he said.

Del Balzo conducted a study of the O'Hare proposal with a team of nationally-recognized experts, including: William Hendricks, former FAA safety czar; Sieg Poritzky, former Senior Vice President both for the Airports Council International (ACI) and the Air Transport Association (ATA) as well as FAA Director of System Engineering Management; Dr. Ken Fleming, Director of Air Traffic Management Research at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; and William Pollard, former head of both the FAA Great Lakes Regional office and the agency's National Airspace office.

In a new analysis, Del Balzo noted that Chicago's own study had demonstrated that the proposed O'Hare expansion could not accommodate the 1.6 million annual flights that Chicago had publicly claimed last year. Chicago's own experts now say the OMP will become gridlocked at a significantly lower number of just 1.3 million flights. But the city's analysis failed to consider adequately that the airspace over O'Hare -- already the nation's most crowded -- could not safely and efficiently handle the additional traffic.

In addition, Del Balzo said at a Washington news conference that two top aviation industry leaders were so troubled by Del Balzo's findings that they have volunteered their own time, without pay, to guide further analysis of critical operational, safety, security, economic and social issues that Chicago has failed to do.

The two are: David Hinson, former FAA Administrator and former airline chief executive officer and Jonathan Howe, former president of the National Business Aviation Association, the Airports Council International and former FAA Regional Administrator.

"The documents and planning studies that have been released to date by the city are at best erroneous and incomplete and at worst misleading and intellectually dishonest. The FAA should reject the plan and look to others," said Del Balzo.

On behalf of the Villages of Bensenville and Elk Grove Village, which border O'Hare, Del Balzo's firm, JDA Aviation Technology Solutions of Washington (DC), has assembled a team of nationally-recognized experts with whom the volunteer executives will work, to analyze fully the O'Hare Modernization Program (OMP).

In formal comments filed Friday with the FAA, Del Balzo described the team's initial conclusions that the OMP is fundamentally flawed in several critical areas: airspace, capacity/delay, safety/security and cost. The filing represents a critical new phase in the O'Hare expansion saga, as federal authorities ponder the city's request for approval of its Airport Layout Plan (ALP) -- a key component of the OMP that describes the location of runways, taxiways and other facilities.

"The city would have you think the decisions have been made and this game is over. My years of experience at the FAA tell me that before the FAA approves this defective plan and the American taxpayer is asked to foot the bill for the most costly project in aviation history, the FAA will undertake serious scrutiny and technical evaluation," Del Balzo said.

"To put it bluntly, the process has only just begun; it ain't over. I am confident the FAA will reject the city's piecemeal approach. The Administrator must place a hold on the consideration of the ALP until the deficiencies of the more comprehensive OMP are examined and resolved," he said. The expert panel will file more detailed analysis of those critical areas in the next few weeks, Del Balzo said.

In the filing with the FAA, Del Balzo argues that under federal law and the agency's own regulations, the FAA cannot approve Chicago's ALP until the city submits more detailed and credible evidence that the expansion can safely, securely and effectively achieve the city's own stated goals. Such evidence has not been made public and may not exist, Del Balzo said.

In a separate statement, Hinson and Howe said that concerns already identified by Del Balzo's preliminary analysis "raise serious and troubling questions that ask whether the OMP makes any sense and whether it will help or hinder civil aviation. There is no need to rush a decision when the consequences are so significant. With our considered input, we are confident the FAA will reach the right result."

Del Balzo is a man of exceptional qualification and integrity, making his evaluation of the Chicago airport scheme especially noteworthy among aviation professionals nationwide, Hinson and Howe said. His work on O'Hare so far also highlights systemic secretiveness and a disregard for the FAA's recommended planning practices to this point that is disconcerting for an airport development of this magnitude, they said.

"We commit to finding answers to those questions and to informing the public and the FAA of our findings," they said. "Without the dedication, persistence and determination of the leadership and citizens of Bensenville and Elk Grove Village -- two communities that will be seriously impacted by the OMP -- these important issues would never have been raised. The citizens and taxpayers of the Chicago area, indeed, of the entire nation, as well as the flying public owe a great debt to these communities."

Del Balzo's memorandum to the FAA said that, even taking the city's planning documents at face value, the OMP fails for several simple and straightforward reasons:

Airspace

The airspace around O'Hare is simply too congested. Trying to cram more traffic into the already crowded airspace creates such fundamental problems that it will negate whatever is done on the ground. The experts said they were stunned that Chicago failed to demonstrate how the airspace over O'Hare can handle the additional traffic that will be generated by the OMP. The capacity studies prepared for the City completely ignored other area traffic, the report said.

As Hinson and Howe said in their statement: "You can add runways, but you can't expand airspace."

Capacity/Delays

The idea that delay and congestion reduction will be achieved by the use of simultaneous landings on four parallel runways is fatally flawed. In its analysis of this issue, the city made a significant error by assuming the proposed "quad" runway would be available in minimum weather conditions. In fact, the quad runway approaches will be available only in excellent (VFR) weather conditions-when the ceiling is greater than 5,500 feet and visibility is greater than 10 miles. More than 40 per cent of the time, landings would have to be restricted to three runways-a capacity Chicago already has.

Even if the runways did provide the needed capacity for delay reduction (Chicago's own studies say the runways don't provide the needed capacity), the airspace saturation would negate the multi-billion dollar investment in runways.

Safety And Security

In safety terms, the memo said, the expansion would make O'Hare an airport of the past, rather than an airport of the future. "Simply put, OMP is designed to operate at the outer edge of safety limits in an effort to wring capacity out of a flawed design."

The OMP has inadequate safety margins, requiring an unprecedented number of active runway crossings and making extensive use of "land and hold short" procedures that are strongly criticized by pilots, controllers and safety experts. Further, the OMP will struggle to safely accommodate the future New Large Aircraft (NLA) that require more taxiway and runway space than today's jumbos.

Further, the memo questions whether O'Hare will be able to operate with adequate levels of safety and security over a 10-year construction period while thousands of workers build new runways in the midst of the world's busiest airport. Safety and security will be diminished by the large number of persons and equipment that will have access to the airport's operational area.

Cost

The project will cost too much -- as much as more than three times the $6.6 billion the city claims. The OMP's cost will be so large that the airlines and their passengers -- who will necessarily bear much of the charge -- will not be able to afford it. If the OMP is built as proposed, O'Hare will no longer be cost-competitive with other major connecting hubs.

O'Hare expansion is so rife with problems, the filing said, that instead of "focusing solely on expanding O'Hare to fulfill a role for which it was never intended, the FAA needs to look at other regional alternatives. Failure to do so will only repeat past mistakes."

"The comments we filed today with the FAA marks the start of a critical phase of O'Hare expansion in which expressing our concerns in Washington, D.C. to aviation authorities and elected officials becomes even more important than before," said Mayor Craig Johnson of Elk Grove Village.

"It's critical that the FAA be fully aware of the major issues that are left unresolved by the Chicago proposal," said John Geils, Bensenville Village President. "We're confident that the analysis we have provided today -- and the additional detail we will provide in the next few weeks -- will compel the FAA to reject a proposal that wastes billions of federal tax dollars," he said.

"We have seen little of the critical data and information that have been exchanged between the City and the FAA and it's important that we do. But even taking the city's planning documents at face value, the inescapable conclusion is the OMP does not work and won't reduce delays" at O'Hare, Del Balzo said.

FMI: www.suburban-ohare.org

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