Friday, September 26, 2014

O'Hare is the World's Busiest Airport (this week)

Heathrow Airport, London — 2009 
     Willis Tower is the tallest building in North America, still, if you consider its roof as the top and ignore the dubious antenna stuck atop One World Trade Center in New York.
     Not that the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat ruled that way.
     Of course, if you consider the altitude of buildings, then any warehouse in Denver beats our tallest building, since their ground floors start a mile up, and Chicago is a paltry 600 feet or so above sea level.
     Not that people measure buildings that way; it’s a complicated business.
     As is “world’s busiest airport,” a title that our reflexively proud Mayor Rahm Emanuel reclaimed for O’Hare International Airport.
     “Busiest airport in the world,” the mayor said Wednesday. “O’Hare International Airport has regained its status as the world’s busiest airport for flight operations,” the Department of Aviation announced.
     Which is odd, because just last week, CNN reported that Atlanta’s Hartsfield is busiest for the 16th year in a row, with 94.4 million passengers passing through in 2013.
     Sharp-eyed readers will note different measures being used here: The mayor is referring to “flight operations” while CNN is talking about passengers.
     From January to August 2014, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, 580,000 flights took off or landed at O’Hare, nudging us past Atlanta, barely.
     But before we start printing up celebratory T-shirts, maybe we should squint a little harder at those stats.
     First, notice they're only for eight months. Atlanta squeaked by us in 2013, even in flight operations, with 911,000 takeoffs and landings to O'Hare's 883,000. The race isn't over.
     "There's still more year left," noted Tony Molinero, spokesman for the FAA in Chicago. While there's nothing wrong with feeling victorious in first place while the season is still going on - baseball teams like to enter the All-Star break on top - you don't want to chill the champagne either.
     Because that's a game other people can play. Tiny Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis., also claims to be the world's busiest airport, and they, too, have facts to back them up, since there are 25,000 takeoffs and landings during the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual convention there in July. Slice the time window small enough, and any given airport can, for the moment, be the world'sbusiest.
     So which airport metrics are the best? My gut tells me, when Joe Average Flier is thinking about busy airports, he's not thinking of how many FedEx planes are taking off and landing empty, but how many passengers are thronging the terminals. On that measurement, Chicago is not only currently being creamed by Hartsfield, but we're in sixth place, behind airports in Beijing and Dubai, London's Heathrow, Tokyo's Haneda and - prepare yourself for a shock - Los Angeles International, which snuck ahead of us since last year, serving a million more passengers than O'Hare so far in 2014.
     Not to be Debbie Downer here. O'Hare's nosing past Atlanta, even for a few months, is not insignificant. This is a horse race.
     "For the first four months of the year, Atlanta had more, the next four months of the year it was O'Hare, so it's been fairly close," Molinero said. "It's been many years since O'Hare had more monthly flights than Atlanta."
     He noted that the FAA does not track people.
     "Whether a plane has one person or 100" doesn't matter, he said, for FAA purposes. Putting more planes through the place is a sign of health.    
     "A busy airport is good for the economy," Molinero said, noting that the mayor's boast does represent "good, legitimate, real numbers. There's strong data there, absolutely."
     Maybe that's the problem: Chicago is boasting about passing Atlanta in one of three airport metrics over an eight-month period, as if hurrying to do it before we slip back again. Has it come to that?
     The key is to make sure O'Hare is the best transportation hub it possibly can be, not to make red circles around whatever stats tell ourselves we're No. 1. Believing yourself to be tops is dangerous in business. Galena was once No. 1, considering itself superior to Chicago. It had that all-important lead ore mine and the mighty Mississippi. So when the Illinois Central wanted to go through Galena, the city refused. Chicago, less proud, welcomed the railroad. Good call.
     Telling yourself you're No. 1 might feel good, even on flimsy evidence. But I'd prefer a mayor who says we're not No. 1 and need to fight like hell. That's closer to the truth.


  1. I'm going with the number of flights. Not because I live in Chicago, but because the airport makes more money from landing fees.
    While the businesses in the terminal make more money from more passengers, if the airport doesn't make money, then it has problems being maintained.
    Plus, the only reason Atlanta has so many flights & passengers is that Delta forces most of its planes through there with its hub & spoke system, while O'Hare does have hub & spoke from United & American, it also has a lot of point to point flights.
    Flying to & from the entire Southeast US means you go through Atlanta, which means the majority are just passing through.
    O'Hare also has a lot of passing through, but not anywhere near the percentage.

  2. For some reason as I read this piece, instead of reading/hearing "O'Hare," I kept reading/hearing Mayor Richard J. Daley (Richard the 1st) proudly calling it "O'Hara." Kind of made it funnier. Kind of.

  3. The elder Daley was not alone in his 'Irishification." Musicians among your readers will appreciate a concert review my wife saw in a Dublin newspaper some years ago which referred to the Hary Janos Suite by the Hungarian composer K, O'Daley.

  4. Being the busiest airport is a dubious distinction - it also means you have to put up with more passengers and traffic. People will go out of their way to avoid LAX, even going to "world class" Long Beach instead. JFK or EWR? Pick your poison.

  5. To me, saying the former Sears Tower is the tallest building in the *Western Hemisphere* sounds more impressive, but I suppose that, political correctness being what it is, that seems like a short step away from referring to "the Occident." ; ) All that should matter in the building rankings is how high the highest occupiable floor is, IMHO. The stuff on top is more akin to a sculpture contest.

    And Chicago is the third most populous city in the nation, unquestionably the most important city not on a coast, thereby laying claim to being the great metropolis of the vast interior of the nation. As long as people realize that, the airport rankings are not that significant. IMHO, again, of course. Does anybody question the status of New York because there are 3 big airports serving the metro area and not the busiest one?

    Regardless, in addition to the points that Clark St. made above about the Atlanta statistics, Midway had nearly 10 million boardings last year, itself, placing it 24th with regard to that statistic. Atlanta's "second" airport is in the "discussion" stage. Atlanta still wins the boardings race, even if you combined O'hare and Midway's numbers. But Chicago must have a pretty big edge in "flight operations" compared with Atlanta if you count *all* the flights being operated in Chicago.

  6. Rather inopportune time for Mayor Rahm to brag about O'Hare on a day when both airports are shut down for hours because of air traffic controller problems.



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