When commissioner, Rosemarie Andolino, walks out of the Chicago Department of Aviation’s office for the last time this autumn, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that O’Hare and Midway international airports will be losing one their biggest supporters.
A local girl – she grew up in Elk Grove Village just west of O’Hare – Andolino admits that she has always been a fan of the Windy City’s airports, so the chance to help develop them, first as executive director of the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) and then as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), was an opportunity she says she simply couldn’t turn down.
And she certainly couldn’t be accused of sitting back and taking it easy as under her leadership the city’s gateways have undergone somewhat of a transformation in terms of new infrastructure, route development, profitability and pioneering environmental initiatives.
So what has it felt like to be the boss of one of the world’s biggest airport systems for the past five years?
“It’s been exciting, a learning experience and an amazing ride,” enthuses Andolino, who is stepping aside in October to pursue a new challenge in the private sector after 24 years in local government and 11 years in aviation.
“My focus was to take two great airports and make them better, and I genuinely believe we have over the past five years.”
Rise to the top
Andolino worked in various positions for the City of Chicago from 1990 onwards and served as first deputy commissioner in the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) before then Chicago mayor, Richard Daley, appointed her executive director of the OMP in 2003.
The role put her well and truly in the spotlight, with some questioning her suitability to oversee the $8 billion OMP, despite the fact that as first deputy commissioner with the DPD she managed a $35 million budget, oversaw $100 million of land acquisition and capital investments in the Neighborhoods Alive Program, and helped secure state and federal funding for numerous city projects.
She proved her critics wrong by successfully working with federal, state and local officials to secure OMP funding. Indeed, in November 2005 the then US Department of Transportation Secretary, Norman Mineta, travelled to Chicago to approve the city’s request for more than $300 million in federal funding.
And since then the OMP has raised more than $5 billion through the sale of bonds and received approval for four Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) applications by the FAA to fund design, construction and land acquisition projects.
Under Andolino’s leadership, the OMP also created the Sustainable Design Manual (SDM), a nationally recognised document that has allowed O’Hare to become the benchmark for environmental stewardship in design and construction for a civil project.
The successes led to her being appointed commissioner of the CDA in February 2009 and, arguably, she has acted as the catalyst for one of the most successful periods in the history of O’Hare and Midway.
“If you think of the runways we’ve built on time, ahead of schedule and under budget; the complete transformation of Terminal 5 at O’Hare; traffic growth; record revenues; the installation of the first Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks in the United States; and the fact that times have never been so robust in terms of new air services,
I think my record holds up pretty well,” she says.
Andolino could also have mentioned the significant strides Chicago’s airports have taken to embrace environmental best practice and to improve their customer service levels, or the image-enhancing upgrades to the domestic terminals that have included, and continue to incorporate, the introduction of a number of new concession concepts.
She quips: “I may not have grown up in the aviation business, but I’ve grown up in the business of getting things done.”
O’Hare Modernization Plan (OMP)
Phase 1 of the $8 billion programme incorporated two new runways, a runway extension and a new ATC tower. Phase 2A, to be completed in October 2015, will add a new runway and another ATC tower on the south of the airfield.
The new control towers mean that by the end of next year O’Hare will be equipped with three ATC towers, two of which will be LEED certified – Silver and Gold respectively – and will feature green roofs.
One of the towers will use geothermal technology and other sustainable initiatives that will make it unique in the US.
The airfield reconfiguration programme will equip O’Hare with eight runways – three east-west parallel runways and cross-field runways each to the north and south of central terminal core.
“There are not too many airports in the world that can claim to have built three and a half new runways and two air traffic control towers in such a short space of time,” enthuses Andolino.
“It is definitely one of the highlights of my time in office as some people can go a whole career without getting permission for a single new runway. The new airfield is the safest and most efficient way to operate O’Hare.”
Being able to handle more than 200 aircraft movements per hour should also ensure that delays at O’Hare no longer have such a negative impact on the entire US airport system, or as someone once said, “when O’Hare sneezes, everyone catches a cold”.
What’s left with the OMP? “One more runway, one more extension and a possible 60-gate western terminal complex,” says Andolino, suggesting that the new passenger complex is more of a long-term and demand-driven project.
“Until then, enhancements of the existing terminals to maximise their operational capacity and efficiency are likely to take priority,” she says.
Initiatives such as establishing 75 beehives on remote locations across the airport site; hiring a shepherd and grazing herds of goats and llamas to manage hard-to-reach vegetated areas at O’Hare; or opening an aeroponic garden in T3 – where vegetables, peppers and herbs are grown for airport restaurants – have grabbed the headlines and firmly established Chicago’s airports as environmental pioneers.
However, Andolino believes it is the CDA’s long-standing commitment to sustainable development that helps set it apart from the rest, makes it a good neighbour to local residents and has reduced its costs.
She points out that the CDA was talking about LEED-certified buildings back in 2003 when it produced its first Sustainable Design Manual (SDM) – since evolved into the Sustainable Airport Manual (SAM) – which effectively outlines what is expected from all O’Hare and Midway stakeholders.
All concessionaires, for example, are now required to use biodegradable wrappers and packaging, and Andolino states it has proved so popular that some have since adopted similar policies elsewhere.
Andolino states that the drive to deliver top-quality customer service is a priority of the CDA as it wants to showcase the very best of Chicago to visitors and reflect the city’s famous Midwest hospitality. She firmly believes that collaboration with other airport stakeholders is the key to good customer service and argues that all sides need to work on making improvements at their specific touchpoints.
“The customer has many touchpoints at an airport, many of which are not under our control, so therefore everyone has to do their part to ensure that our passengers enjoy a good experience.
“For us it might be something as simple as ensuring that the bathrooms are clean or making it easier to get assistance and information. All frontline staff at O’Hare and Midway are effectively ambassadors for our airports and therefore need to be passionate about their jobs and the city of Chicago.”
Andolino also enthusiastically talks about the CDA’s new, improved partnership with TSA and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff at the airport, which she believes has helped create a more customer-friendly environment.
“We managed to change the conversation with them by opting to work together to solve problems instead of playing the blame game and pointing fingers at each other.”
She also feels that opening airport versions of a number of popular Chicago F&B and retail outlets – most noticeably in O’Hare’s newly revamped T5 – has helped enhance a sense of place, create a better customer experience and ultimately boost higher retail revenues.
Between them Chicago’s airports handled a total of 87.3 million passengers in 2013 and the upturn has continued into 2014, with volumes up by nearly 4% at O’Hare and 2% at Midway in the first
five months of the year.
O’Hare, the city’s main international gateway, accounted for 66.9 million (+0.4%) and Midway – which essentially handles domestic services and international flights to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean – accommodated 20.4 million (+5%).
The difference in traffic is down to the fact that Midway is built on a site of just one square mile and the 6,500ft (1,980m) length of its longest runway is not enough to accommodate non-stop flights to long-haul destinations.
It does, however, handle regional traffic, with airlines such as Volaris and Porter serving Mexico and Canada respectively, and Southwest serving Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
As a result, APC kiosks were installed at Midway earlier this year to make it easier for US citizens on international services to pass through its facilities.
When you talk to Rosemarie Andolino about the highlights of her five years in charge of Chicago’s airport system, the subject of route development is right up there.
Indeed, she mentions attending World Routes in Vancouver in 2010 as a turning point for the CDA as it proved to her that Chicago had to do much more than just show “pretty postcards of Chicago” to airlines to get them to launch services to O’Hare or Midway.
And she has certainly taken the lessons she learnt in Vancouver to heart, as the development of a new route development strategy since then has led to the most productive period in Chicago’s history
in terms of the launch of new routes and frequency increases.
Andolino actually cites the launch of Etihad services (Abu Dhabi) in 2009 – a year earlier than World Routes in Vancouver 2010 – as the start of the current “golden years” of international route development for O’Hare.
She notes that Qatar (Doha) followed in 2013, and the addition of Emirates (Dubai) later this year will give O’Hare the full set of big Middle Eastern carriers.
Other additions under Andolino’s leadership include Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong), Copa (Panama), Air India (Delhi), WestJet (Calgary and Vancouver), airberlin (Berlin), Austrian Airlines (Vienna), Hainan Airlines (Beijing) and Volaris (Guadalajara, Zacatecas, Morelia and Leon), while Spirit has trebled its operations into Chicago.
“When we talk about airports as economic engines, depending on the size of the aircraft and the destination, a new route could add anything from $20 million to $200 million of investment per annum into your city,” she enthuses.
“In total, we have added over $3 billion worth of new services per annum to Chicago in the past five years and this is an achievement of which I am particularly proud.”