O'Hare flight caps to end

Federal officials announced yesterday they will lift flight caps at O'Hare International Airport later this year, a move that could ease congestion at one of the country's worst-performing airports.

The caps were set in 2004 to control congestion and delays at O'Hare. They will be lifted Oct. 31, due to the scheduled completion of an additional runway and control tower that are part of the O'Hare Modernization Project.

With the flight caps removed, the airport will handle up to 70 additional flights per day, says FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell. He says travelers may will see either no change or a slight decrease in delay time.

"There will be more traffic for the passengers certainly because we see several requests coming in, but delays will be flat or they will be improved," Sturgell says.

O'Hare has seen a steady decrease in the number of on-time flights. According to the FAA website, on-time flights went from 74.92 percent during 2005 to 68.23 percent in 2006 and then down to 65.88 percent in 2007. This year, data from January to April shows 59.27 percent of O'Hare flights have been on time.

Airlines must schedule O'Hare flights six months in advance, meaning the FAA will be able to cut the number of takeoffs and landings if removing the caps causes trouble, Sturgell says.

"We are mindful of the airlines' concerns that we need to ensure better performance and predictability at O'Hare, so we will have to be monitoring the situation," he says.

The new runway -- O'Hare's first since 1971 -- and the control tower are due to open Nov. 20. An extension to an existing runway will open Sept. 25.

Mayor Richard M. Daley says the announcement illustrates the importance of the modernization project, and of keeping construction on time.

"You have to have a vision," he said. "If you don't…this airport will be old."

Daley says flight caps led to higher fares and fewer choices for O'Hare passengers, and also limited economic growth in the region.