I am what might be called a thrifty air traveler. Such a cheapskate, actually, that when I am not paying for flights using airline mileage points, I regularly book a route on Spirit Airlines from O’Hare International Airport — even knowing full well a jet bridge may not be available to connect passengers between the terminal and the airplane.
It means Spirit customers board some flights by carrying their bags down a long flight of stairs at a “gate’’ at the very end of Concourse “L’’ in Terminal 3. The next step involves going outside to walk along an enclosed pedway on the tarmac, and then walking still farther on a pitched, zigzagging ramp that leads to the airplane door.
Maybe there is new hope to stem the hassle of flying at O’Hare, though. News from City Hall over the past week suggested that gateless gates will become a relic of the past at O’Hare — sometime within the next eight years — under an $8.5 billion construction boom to build new passenger terminals and about three dozen additional aircraft gates. All state-of-the-art amenities befitting a world-class airport decked out with terminals that sport a passenger jet bridge for each and every airplane parking at a gate. What a concept!
But hold onto your seat. The first sniff of a potential hard landing surfaced Feb. 26 when the Emanuel administration basically announced a tentative agreement with the major airlines on the terminal expansion project in an odd fashion, through a leaked story to the Chicago Tribune.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel clearly wanted to get the story out about the deal, even though United Airlines and American Airlines, which operate the vast majority of flights at O’Hare, were still negotiating with the city on the specifics of increased landing fees, terminal rents and other charges that will stretch out for years, according to the Tribune story.
Officials from the two airlines were initially mum on the blockbuster deal. We now know why. The Chicago Department of Aviation apparently had cut separate side deals with American and United for a relatively few additional gates that are not included in the plan for about 35 new gates that would be built under the $8.5 billion terminal redevelopment program.
Thus was born the latest scandal: Gate-gate.
Chicago-based United, which already led the gate race, would continue to pull ahead under the scenario, leading officials at Texas-based American to balk. American announced on Wednesday that it refused to sign the entire $8.5 billion deal just hours before the plan was introduced to the Chicago City Council.
Aside from the rift over gates, the project was already a difficult lift because it relied heavily on debt via city bonding, higher landing fees and leases paid by the airlines over the next 15 years. Add to the mix the strong expectation of no federal funding from the Trump administration.
Will city officials, in order to end the deadlock, muster the wisdom of King Solomon and re-subdivide those handfuls of disputed gates to the satisfaction of both American and United so that neither side feels the other has an unfair advantage?
I’ve got a better approach. The City Council should demonstrate to taxpayers that it has learned from the debacle of the city parking meter privatization deal. It’s time to slow down, read the fine print and ask educated questions.
One major issue involves ensuring an ironclad policy barring the airlines from continuing to monopolize the gates to which they are assigned at O’Hare. Divvying up gates for 35-year stretches represents the old way of doing business. It has allowed the legacy carriers like American and United to drive down competition from discount airlines by using O’Hare’s chronic gate shortage as the wedge.
It’s why Spirit passengers must hit the stairs on some flights, even though an empty gate that is leased exclusively by another airline might be available nearby.
Airports elsewhere are taking back control from airlines. Singapore’s Changi Airport, arguably the best airport in the world, maintains total control of all gates and assigns them to airlines in increments as brief as a half hour. Airline logos and flight information are displayed on changeable message boards at the generic gates. The gates are situated in luxurious common gate-hold rooms outfitted with ceiling vents pumping extra oxygen to help invigorate passengers deplaning after breathing cabin air on long flights.
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans has promised that the city will not “give away the farm’’ in the next long-term lease contract with the carriers. She told the Tribune that the airlines will lose sole possession of gates that they currently have exclusive access to regardless of how much (or little) the gates are actually in use.
If the city holds its ground with United and American, the turbulence of Gate-gate won’t matter.
Jon Hilkevitch, a retired Chicago Tribune transportation reporter, teaches journalism at DePaul University.
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