Even as Chicago prepares to open a new runway at O’Hare International Airport, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration last week said future air traffic demand will require much more flight capacity in the region.

Either existing airports must be greatly expanded or a new facility must be built in addition to the $8 billion runway expansion at O’Hare, according to published reports of remarks by FAA acting administrator Robert Sturgell. The added capacity is needed to keep the entire air traffic grid working efficiently as Chicago is considered a national aviation hub. Passenger levels could double over the next seven years.

The first new runway at O’Hare in more than three decades debuted over the weekend, hosting a marathon and a charity dinner. The runway will formally open Nov. 20 as will a new air traffic control tower.

Any further expansion of O’Hare would run into opposition, as a group of suburbs adjacent to the airport have mounted a litigation campaign against the current reconfiguration and expansion of runways. A DuPage County Circuit Court judge this summer cleared the path for Chicago’s demolition of about 500 suburban homes to make room for one of the new runways, although local opponents vowed to carry on their legal challenge.

An injunction had stalled the city’s efforts to demolish the homes as part of the O’Hare Modernization Program. The $3.3 billion first phase of the plan is underway, while negotiations continue between the city and the airport’s struggling air carriers over approval for the second phase. Officials say they want to complete the three phases of the overall $8 billion program by 2014.

The runway plan is designed to expand the airport’s capacity to 1.2 million flights from one million and relieve delays that occur in poor weather conditions when runways are closed down, impacting the national air traffic grid.

Illinois officials earlier this year submitted to the FAA a revised layout plan for a third regional airport in the Chicago area. The submission marks a significant step forward in the long process of seeking approval for the one-runway, one-terminal airfield that would be built near the village of Peotone, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago.

The state has asked the FAA to conduct an airspace feasibility study as to the effect of the runway layout on the national air traffic grid while the Illinois Department of Transportation undertakes the next step of performing an environmental impact statement.

The state has been acquiring land over the last decade — up to 1,940 acres and 69 parcels of the 133 needed. Cost estimates for the Peotone airport range from $250 million to $400 million.

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