May 20, 2022

Why It Takes 20 Years To Expand An Airport

Lost American Initiative

Whatever happened to the “can do” attitude that allowed this country to put a man on the moon when such a feat was perceived possible only in science fiction movies?   Essential and long overdue improvements to US infrastructure now take decades as work is delayed by bickering special interest groups, mindless bureaucrats and endless state and federal regulations.

The recent opening of 3 new runways at 3 major airports is cause for celebration, but the amount of time required to complete these long overdue expansions is appalling.  Hundreds of billions of dollars a year in energy and human resources are dissipated each year as we still rely on unexpanded and unimproved infrastructure built decades ago.

Consider the time required to reap the benefits of 3 new airport runways.

In the eight months since a new runway opened at the U.S.’s second-busiest airport, plagued for decades with lengthy flight delays, O’Hare has operated with above-average on-time arrivals—better than Dallas, Atlanta and Denver in 2009, according to FlightStats.com. O’Hare’s on-time arrival rate improved by 27% so far this year compared with the same period of 2008. That was twice the improvement of any other big U.S. airport.

The new runway, opened last Nov. 21, gets much of the credit. While airline reductions in flight schedules have eased congestion and reduced flight delays, the ability to now land three planes simultaneously in most weather conditions instead of two jets at a time has turned O’Hare from a choke point into a reliable airport.

Because of the enormous cost and heated legal battles with neighbors and environmentalists, building runways at big airports is a rarity—and a major reason air travel has been bogged down in the past 10 years. Last fall, three major runways opened with much fanfare on the same day in Chicago, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Seattle’s new runway took two decades of planning, approval, court fights and construction. O’Hare’s new runway was the first at that airport in 37 years.

Economic growth relies on an efficient transportation system.  The fact that the second busiest airport in the US could not be expanded for 37 years speaks volumes for the inability of government to “get things done that need to be done”.  Think about this the next time you are wasting 8 hours of your life due to a flight delay.

According to the FAA, 30,000 flights at O’Hare were delayed because of weather in the first five months of 2008. This year through May, only 8,800 weather-delayed flights were recorded “and we had a crazy winter this year with all kinds of snow,” says Ms. Drouet.

Consider the similar multi decades delay for Seattle to add an additional runway:

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, delays typically stacked up in the frequent fog and rain because the two existing runways were too close together to have planes landing side-by-side in poor visibility. So the airport wanted a third runway far enough from the existing runways so planes could land two at a time in any weather.

The project took more than 20 years and cost more than $1 billion. Heavy construction started in 2004.

Stimulus Spending Largely Wasted

A significant amount of the country’s infrastructure was built during the depression.  The interstate highway system was built during the Eisenhower administration before many of us were born.   How much better off would all of us and our children be if necessary improvements  to the country’s infrastructure was addressed in a comprehensive, time sensitive manner?

“Stimulus spending” of almost a trillion dollars was deployed to reduce taxes, enhance special interest spending and pass out funds to those who would most quickly spend it at Walmarts on Chinese imported goods.  This type of foolish spending leaves us another trillion in debt while keeping Chinese factories busy – it does not leave the country with anything of lasting value.

Vacuous Leadership

Of course, even if every dollar of stimulus spending had been directed exclusively to infrastructure enhancements, it would not be spend for 15 years if the airport runway example applies.    Therein lies the pitfalls of democracy – those making the spending decisions are more focused on the next election rather than the strategic long term needs of the Country.

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