The O'Hare rebuild is mired in negotiations and potential changes. Here's how another airport finished construction

Sarah Freishtat, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

A few years before Chicago reached an agreement with the city’s airlines to overhaul O’Hare International Airport, New York officials jump-started a rebuild of LaGuardia Airport.

After years of discussion, planning and a design competition for the New York airport, in 2015 a development team got the go-ahead to begin the first piece of what would come to be an $8 billion rebuild of most of LaGuardia.

Nine years later, two new lauded terminals at the airport are open, and the last of the terminal work is set to be finished this year.

In Chicago, the centerpiece of the O’Hare construction has stalled, mired in debate about cost overruns and how to move forward.

The O’Hare overhaul, negotiated by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2018, included a broad rebuilding and expansion of the airport. The heart of the project was replacing aging Terminal 2 with a gleaming new Global Terminal, and adding two satellite concourses.

Parts of the overhaul have been completed, but the key terminal rebuild has yet to get off the ground. O’Hare’s two main air carriers — United and American, who are on the hook for much of the original $6.1 billion price tag associated with terminal work — pushed back against higher costs. Negotiations between the city and the airlines turned contentious and spilled into public view, and earlier this month, the city proposed a path forward that involved reshuffling the order of construction and prioritizing work on the Global Terminal, something the airlines had pushed for and that had been blasted by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.


Delays and cost overruns in major construction projects are not unusual, but other airports that serve as major Midwest hubs have moved forward with plans, such as American Airlines’ hub at Dallas Fort Worth. As the O’Hare terminal project struggles, the key role the airport plays in both the nation’s air system and the city’s economy hangs in the balance.

In New York, the LaGuardia rebuild was pushed forward by powerful politicians committed to the project, and the work was managed through a partnership with private sector companies. The New York airport is also a different type of market for the airlines, making them more willing to absorb higher costs, for example. But the LaGuardia project offers one example of how a complex, multibillion-dollar terminal rebuild at a crowded airport moved forward.

‘A strong arm and a powerful presence’

The rebuild of LaGuardia — an airport that is smaller than O’Hare, and crammed into a plot of land along the water — did not unfold flawlessly. But by 2015 the agency that oversees the airport, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had selected a private development team to demolish and rebuild one of the airport’s terminals for $3.6 billion. The team would design, build, operate and maintain the new terminal.


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