The new runway that opened a year ago at O’Hare International Airport is both long and wide enough to handle the world’s largest passenger airplane. But the behemoth Airbus A380 jetliner is not yet flying to Chicago, in part because there isn’t a gate that can accommodate it.
Soon that could change, Chicago aviation officials told the Tribune.
All 34 airlines serving the airport’s international terminal No. 5 have agreed to a city request to pay a total of $1 million for preliminary design of new aircraft ramps and passenger loading bridges tailored for the A380, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.
The double-deck aircraft stands 79 feet tall, is the length of a 24-story building laid on its side and has a wingspan that stretches almost 262 feet.
An A380 operated by the German airline Lufthansa visited O’Hare in 2007 as part of a U.S. tour and to complete FAA-mandated technical procedures before passenger service could begin in this country. The plane parked far from the airport’s terminals and stairs were rolled up to one door for visitors to take a peek inside.
Runway 10 Center/28 Center, which opened last October, and a nearby taxi route are rated to handle the supersized A380. The city has applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for variances to allow the A380 to use other runways and taxiways until all phases of the O’Hare expansion plan are completed and more permanent options for takeoffs, landings and taxiing are available.
But completion of the O’Hare Modernization Program could be years away. And the FAA said it will not respond to Chicago’s request for temporary modifications of standards on airfield usage until an airline that operates A380s signs a letter of intent to begin service with the plane at a specific date at O’Hare, the FAA said.
Some taxiways have already been modified to make room for the wider turning radius of the A380, and the bridges that extend over Interstate Highway 190 have been reinforced to bear the weight of the A380, officials said.
So the immediate focus is on addressing the inadequacies of the existing jet bridges to handle A380s. The city and its consultants are evaluating where new gates could be built at Terminal 5, both to accommodate the mega-jetliner and to increase the number of gates for planes as large as Boeing 747s from the current 12 gates to as many as 17 gates, said O’Hare spokesman Gregg Cunningham. Terminal 5 has a total of 21 gates.
Possible improvements to the inside of the terminal are also being reviewed, ranging from the ticketing hall and departure lounges to the baggage claim areas, to better accommodate the more than 500 passengers who will board and exit each A380.
City officials said cost estimates will be made after the necessary modifications are determined. The Aviation Department received six proposals for a preliminary design concept and it expects to select a designer this month, Cunningham said. A comprehensive plan will be presented to the airlines early next year, he said.
The A380, which carries up to 555 passengers in a three-class layout, is served at six airports in the U.S. and two airports in Canada by using at least one and often two boarding bridges at the main deck level and one bridge to the upper deck, according to Airbus.
Chicago’s goal is to begin A380 service at O’Hare as early as 2016, officials said.
The list of airlines paying for the A380 airport design work includes United Airlines and American Airlines, which are contributing the largest shares. The payment levels are based on the number of flights each airline operates at Terminal 5, officials said.
Neither American nor United operates A380s, and both airlines said there are no plans to add them to the fleets.
In addition, the two airlines said they have no plans to help fund A380-related construction when the project progresses to that point.
“We believe that the airlines driving these new infrastructure demands should financially support any resulting improvements,” United spokesman Luke Punzenberger said.
American spokeswoman Leslie Scott said the Fort Worth-based airline’s support for preliminary design work is “based on our determination that a project meets a demonstrated need at the airport, not necessarily that it benefits us directly.”