Sources: City-airlines O'Hare talks near collapse
Tense negotiations between the city of Chicago and United and American airlines over O'Hare expansion have almost collapsed, officials said today.

The acrimony between the two sides has run so deep that, despite agreements to meet almost every day, city and airline officials often convene in separate rooms, with officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation shuttling back and forth, according to city, airline and federal sources.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. characterized the negotiations as difficult.

"We’re trying to get them all back together," Durbin said Wednesday. "The mayor’s frustrated, I’m frustrated. It’s hard to get them back to the table.”

The dispute centers on the city's controversial financing plan and speedy construction timetable to complete the $3.4 billion final phase of new runways at O'Hare International Airport.

United and American are seeking to delay the project for many years until passenger demand rebounds and flights increase. But city officials have refused to accept so-called flight triggers, saying the $15 billion O'Hare project and related capital improvements might never be completed.

The deadlocked talks have not shown positive signs since hitting a low point earlier this month during direct talks in Washington between Mayor Richard Daley, United CEO Jeffery Smisek and American CEO Gerard Arpey.

Daley, venting anger over the stalled O'Hare project, tongue-lashed the two airline bosses, accusing them of breaching a promise to help pay for all the work, according to the city, airline and federal sources.

The airline executives were not persuaded, or intimidated, by Daley's display of emotion, sources said.

The airlines, which contend the city violated their O'Hare lease agreements that give them approval rights on major capital projects, have sued the city to stop a $1 billion emergency bond sale needed to keep the O'Hare work moving forward this spring.

A trial on the airlines' lawsuit has been postponed several times to give negotiations more time. But litigation now appears increasingly likely, regardless of mediation efforts led by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

LaHood offered an upbeat assessment that was at odds with what other officials said.

"There are a bunch of people in serious negotiations," LaHood said Wednesday.

Asked when the talks might wrap up, he said: "Soon."

Barring another court postponement, a Cook County judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments next Tuesday on a motion by the city to dismiss the lawsuit.

If Judge Richard Billik denies the motion, a hearing on the airlines' suit seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the billion-dollar bond sale would begin March 8.

“I hope we can reach an agreement before the court forces one,” Durbin said.

Jon Hilkevitch reported from Chicago, with Katherine Skiba in Washington.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

kskiba@tribune.com