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Chicago Department of Aviation: The sky’s the limit

By William D Alessandro on April 02, 2013 at 5:06pm.


It’s a safe bet.  More U.S. business flyers have been delayed or stranded at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport than have never been there.  The airfield is the second busiest in the world in terms of aircraft movement.  It ranks fourth in number of passengers.

Larger than 10 square miles, the “city within a city” is run by the municipal Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA).  So is Midway, which until the start of the 1960s was Chicago’s principal airport.   (An aside: Midway is named after the naval battle in the Pacific in 1942.  O’Hare is the surname of a Navy flying ace killed in WWII.)

The mayor is a Democratic Party generalissimo.  Rahm Emanuel was sworn in during May 2011.  He had been the White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama.  Before that he was a senior advisor to President Bill Clinton.  Emanuel’s stature in party politics is in no small measure due to his talent as a fundraiser.  That skill outweighs his reputation for being foul-mouthed and combative.

The expansion plan for O’Hare started long ago.  But the mayor embraces sustainable management when it generates construction jobs and helps to rebuild the crumbling metropolitan infrastructure.  Emanuel wants cash-strapped Chicago to tap more of the wealth brought in by overseas travellers.

Emanuel’s commissioner in charge of O’Hare and Midway is Rosemarie “Rosie” Andolino.  Rosie is a native of the city.  She has been a public official in Chicago since 1990, and is a holdover from the regime of Mayor Richard Daley. 

Andolino had no experience in transportation when she got the job in 2003 to preside over the huge renovation plans (more than $8 billion) for O’Hare.  As commissioner she flies around the world to inspect other airports, speaks at aviation conferences (not too many women hold positions like hers), and brings home good ideas she finds, such as installing beehives on a grassy area at O’Hare where no future expansion is planned.  (Airports in Germany pioneered apiaries as early as 1999.)

Her championship of sustainability won Emanuel’s approval.  But only in its most elastic form.  Emanuel’s version of the triple-bottom line has little (maybe nothing) to do with ecology or with green policies.  It has everything to do with raising revenue for the city. 


This is only the second CDA sustainability report.  The first one for 2011 is 22 pages.  This tops out at 61 pages.  Each delivers almost the same information, the same amount of it, and for the same general audience.

The 2012 report is a step above the level in a  brochure on the subject one might find at a kiosk in the airport.  The contents cover five impact areas: energy use; the environment (embracing three topics:  storm water, potable water, and wetland management); waste management; ground transportation (including mobility to and within the airports); and a grab bag of subjects thrown together under the heading of community.

At the tail end of the report, CDA publishes a table of metrics showing goals under the five impact areas.  The columns on the table contain data for 2010, 2012, and, where any exist, the targets for 2015.

The report pales in comparison with another CDA document.  A 698-page Sustainable Airport Manual presents the unabridged blueprints responsible for the outcomes featured in the public report. 

The manual started in 2003 as a tool for implementing the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) system for rating new construction projects.   CDA  updated it in 2009, turning the LEED material into just one of the chapters. 

The latest version came out in November 2012.  The manual explains how to incorporate as many sustainable elements into a project as are feasible, beyond those required in an individual contract specification or design standard.  It now has chapters dealing with many of the functions at the airport, including administrative procedures, conceptual planning, operations and maintenance, and activities involving concessions and tenants.  It is well worth a look.  The vast majority of the guidance in it applies to any airport.


The sustainability report is prepared by outside contractors, all big names in airport consulting.  They bend over backwards not to overtax the readers.

The formula is to have a page with text —250 words or 350 at the most — followed by a page of photos or a table or graph.   The format eats up a lot of space for the amount of information presented.  This accounts for the fact that while this year’s report is three times the size of the 2011 edition, it is still light as air.

The message, however, comes through clearly.  The airports’ managers will take full advantage of many opportunities to increase operational efficiencies and reduced costs, and yes, also to improve the experience of travellers who come there.

The report offers no links, not even to the Sustainable Airport Manual, except one.  On the last page it refers to www.flychicago.com, which is CDA’s web home.


CDA’s report is breezy.  If air transportation faces any social turbulence or is bumping up against any environmental limitations, you would never know it.

Even the discussion of the noise insulation program is cheery.  Eligible homeowners surrounding the airports — 16,525  of them so far — can more easily “talk on the phone, watch TV, listen to music, take a nap, or have a conversation in their homes”.  (Should we pity those who are not “eligible” and some 6,000 others  who are but must wait in line for several more years?) 

The report follows no independent standard or framework for sustainability disclosures.  There is no assurance statement or any remarks about verification.   The information is not the kind that should raise serious doubts.  The problem with it is a shortage of context and relevance for the intended audience.

Who outside of city officials and suppliers cares about the replacement of four original cooling units, or the construction of new air handling ventilators in Terminal T1?   Nice that the city will save US$775,000 a year from energy retrofits with a payback of only two years.   Why has it taken until 2012 to do it? 

We’ve seen similar gaps in sustainability reports before.  One can get a better appreciation for the environmental, social, and economic issues facing an organisation by reading news archives on the web.

1. The Sustainable Airport Manual might be a better takeoff point for compiling the public report.
2. The discussion of airport sustainability should be couched in a broader context.
3. Opinions, positions taken, and other inputs from stakeholders should be included.
William D’Alessandro is president of Victor House News Co., an independent agency reporting on law and the environment for trade publications and executive newsletters.  He also edits Crosslands Bulletin http://www.crosslandsbulletin.com covering strategic corporate environmental management and sustainability issues.