Behind the Scenes at O'Hare Airport During one of the busiest weeks of the year at one of the nation's busiest airports — Chicago's O'Hare International — NPR goes to an operations center to see how American Airlines workers manage the logistics of getting planes to gates, people to planes, and luggage to planes and people.
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Behind the Scenes at O'Hare Airport

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Behind the Scenes at O'Hare Airport

Behind the Scenes at O'Hare Airport

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Airports all around the country may feel the effects this evening of a snowstorm hitting Chicago. Chicago's O'Hare is the world's second busiest airport, with hubs for United and American Airlines.

As part of our series on air travel this week, NPR's David Schaper takes us into the American Airline's ramp tower at O'Hare to see how they manage the chaos.

DAVID SCHAPER: The first thing you need to know about American Airlines operations at O'Hare is that it's really big. American is the nation's largest commercial airline and has its second largest hub here. With its regional carrier, American Eagle, it controls about 40 percent of the flights here at O'Hare each day. That's close to 500 planes in, 500 planes out. At a calm, clear day, the FAA will allow as many as 100 arrivals and 100 departures per hour at O'Hare. On this day, though, low clouds, a little drizzle with some unexpected fog, lead the FAA to cut the rate first to 80 an hour then to 72 and then to 64. And rather quickly, the delays are piling up.

Mr. FRANK STANTON (Operations Coordinator, American Airlines): Today has been a challenging day.

SCHAPER: Frank Stanton is an operations coordinator for American Airlines in Chicago.

Mr. STANTON: Right now, we're running, and we're up from 40 to about 135, 140 minutes late.

SCHAPER: Stanton's job is to try to minimize those delays and he tries to do that from his perch on top of O'Hare's Terminal 3.

Mr. STANTON: This is called the ramp tower. It's an operation center, which is located in the tower. That gives us 360-degree visibility of the airport.

SCHAPER: This large, square room sits up high. The tower provides a bird's eye view that helps traffic managers like Sean Boss(ph) guide Americans' jets from the taxi ways into their gates.

Mr. SEAN BOSS (Traffic manager, O'Hare International Airport): American 1400 from gate.

Unidentified Man: Go ahead, 1400.

Mr. BOSS: 1400, are you on (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man: Affirmative, sort of (unintelligible) over here.

Mr. BOSS: All right. After the 7/5, come in east line, the hotel 12.

SCHAPER: The FAA air traffic controllers order the plane's movements on O'Hare's runways and taxi ways, while Americans traffic managers take over when the planes cross over from the taxi ways into the airline's alley ways, leading to the gates. The workers in this tower represent just about every department in the airline, about 20 people in all. Video and computer screens allow them to monitor everything from the ticket counter and the security lines to the refueling of the aircraft. Depending on the size of the plane, crews have less than an hour to get the passengers off, unload and reload baggage and freight, clean, do maintenance and safety checks, restock food and beverages and re-board passengers.

Ms. MARY FRANCES FAGAN (Spokesperson, American Airlines): Their individual departments represented here and they work as - I define it as an orchestrated ballet.

SCHAPER: American Airlines' Mary Frances Fagan says while everyone has their own job to do, they must also know what the others are doing in this delicate dance of moving around 100-ton airplanes.

Leslie Shigazaki(ph) is the gate manager. And she's looking at a screen showing all 41 of Americans O'Hare gates in a spreadsheet with color-coded bars showing the 250 flights due into those gates. She says the blue bars are planes that are here, yellow are up in the air and green haven't left for Chicago yet.

Ms. LESLIE SHIGAZAKI (Gate Manager, American Airlines): And anything red is an alert to let you know there's some sort of a problem.

SCHAPER: This screen has a lot of red on it as delayed flights begin to overlap at the gates. Shigazaki can move planes to other available gates, but first she must make sure they can accommodate that size aircraft and that there would be crews available to handle the baggage. And ramp tower manager Frank Stanton says he is reluctant to force his customers to walk or run across the sprawling O'Hare terminals to catch their connecting flights.

After 40 years of working in these towers, Stanton knows he's often choosing between the lesser of two evils and there is much that is out of his control, from an antiquated air traffic controller system to Mother Nature. And while he appears to thrive on the chaos, there is one situation Frank Stanton always dreads.

Mr. STANTON: The northeast wind. The winds off the right, you can't tell what you're going to get - (unintelligible) pack of snow.

SCHAPER: And that just so happens to be what's predicted for tonight, the first real snowstorm of the season.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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