The parochial and petty politics that have turned O'Hare International Airport into a treasure-trove for concessionaires and contractors also are at the heart of why the transportation hub is a quagmire of delays, hassles and heartaches.
The political self-interests that have gotten in the way of expanding the world's second-busiest airport--or building a new airfield--are quietly on display in the vaulted corridors of the United Airlines terminal.Buy a carton of cigarettes at the duty-free shop and some of your money finds its way into the pockets of Jeremiah Joyce, who has been one of Mayor Richard Daley's key political strategists.
Satisfy a sweet tooth and you're patronizing the candy shop partially owned by Rev. Clay Evans and Elzie Higginbottom, both influential supporters of the mayor in the African-American community.
Now, take a look at the passengers killing time because of delays or sleeping on rollaway cots because of cancellations. They're where they are because of politics too.
The hidden motives that determine everything from contracts to projections for growth at O'Hare have created an airport that works for the politicians, their friends and the airport's two major airlines, but not for the public.
Political wheeling and dealing at the airport extends to the debate over new runways and a new airport, though with much higher stakes and a wider impact on the tens of thousands of passengers traveling through O'Hare each day.
Daley seems determined to protect the cookie jar of jobs, concessions, contracts and economic largesse that is O'Hare. His administration, the Tribune has found, has manipulated statistics to downplay the need for a new airport near the Will County town of Peotone. At the same time, Daley has benefited from a friendly Clinton administration, which has stalled the Peotone proposal.
Opposing him are a Republican governor and other politicians trying to transform a soybean field in Peotone into another major airport that almost certainly would alleviate some gridlock and would placate constituents who live on the edge of O'Hare and are weary of airport noise and pollution.
At a time when other parts of the country are achieving political compromises to facilitate a surging number of air travelers with new runways and airports, the stalemate in Illinois is especially vexing.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in September blamed local political squabbling for sacrificing the interests of the entire Chicago region and the nation.
"I say pox on all of them," McCain said recently in an interview. "Chicago is one of the most gridlocked places in America and a critical transportation hub. We can't get O'Hare expanded, and we can't build another airport. And those are the only two options."
The airport that clout built
O'Hare has been inexorably linked with politics and the Daleys since the day the airport--formerly a military airfield and orchard--opened in 1955. Its transformation into an aviation crossroads provides a lesson in Machiavellian politics and lucrative dealmaking.
The late Mayor Richard J. Daley was instrumental in breaking a long impasse between the city and the airlines, which had been reluctant to move from Midway Airport, then the nation's busiest, and cover the costs of a new airport.
Daley also resolved the sticky issue of how the City of Chicago could control an airport outside its borders. The solution: The city annexed 5 miles of Higgins Road, creating a controversial "O'Hare corridor" that linked the city with its new airport.
From the start, O'Hare was used by City Hall as a means to reward political allies. Richard J. Daley's administration, for instance, gave the right to sell flight insurance to a company that had hired Daley's City Council floor leader, Thomas Keane, and it handed millions of dollars in construction work to another company that employed Keane.
Since then, as annual flights have grown to about 900,000 and City Hall has received vastly more money to spend at the airport, the basic formula at O'Hare hasn't changed much.