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My Overnight in O’Hare’s New Flight Path

What it’s like to spend a day living next to the runway at one of America’s busiest airports.

Illustration: Michael Byers

“Are you a light sleeper?” Mary asks me after I arrive, duffel bag in hand, at her charming home in the Mayberry-esque enclave of Sauganash Woods on the Northwest Side. “The planes usually continue until 11 or midnight,” explains the 50-year-old mother of three. “Because it’s Sunday, many of them will probably be jumbo jets from overseas. Then, starting at 4:30 a.m., you’ll get the cargoes.”

“It’s a constant barrage,” chimes in her husband, JP, 57, a friendly, fast-talking New York transplant who works as a trader. He leads me to the sunroom so I can get a better look at the conveyor belt of aircraft on their westbound path toward O’Hare. With its view of LaBagh Woods just over the fence, the room used to be the couple’s favorite. “This summer, we didn’t use it,” JP says exasperatedly. “If you look out the skylight, you can see the planes coming directly over the house. They’ve disrupted our lives. It sucks.”

Like thousands of their Northwest Side neighbors who once experienced little to no air traffic, Mary and JP (they requested we not use their real last names, so let’s call them the “Groggys”) are fuming about the new runway at O’Hare. Part of the first phase of the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program, Runway 10C-28C, as it’s technically known, has shifted air traffic from mostly diagonal, crisscrossing runways to a predominantly east-to-west flow. According to noise contour maps, some areas in and around Chicago that sit under the old diagonal runway paths have gotten quieter. But plenty of neighborhoods—including Sauganash Woods, about 10 miles from O’Hare—suddenly began reporting unprecedented noise.

City officials and the Federal Aviation Administration approved the new runway to help reduce delays and increase capacity at the world’s busiest airport. I’ve heard a lot of complaints lately about the new runway. (So has the city: The 32,532 beefs logged to a city-run hotline and website in September were more than were received in all of 2013.) So I was curious: Is it really that noisy living under these reconfigured flight paths? The Groggys graciously invited me to spend the night at their home to find out.

“We didn’t move near the airport; the airport moved near us,” says JP as I join him on a walk with his goldendoodle, Boo. While we proceed down the block on an unseasonably warm November evening, I look to the east and see what the fuss is about. On the horizon are five blinking lights, all destined for the runway that parallels Thorndale Avenue, which now handles almost half of overnight arrivals. A little south, coming in toward the Lawrence Avenue runway, are two more jets. As they converge overhead, it looks as if the Northwest Side were in the midst of an alien invasion.

At one point, the planes coming in pass overhead at the same time, and the whines of the engines bounce off each other in stereo. JP launches the noise monitor app on his phone and registers 86 decibels, which, according to the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, is roughly equal to the sound of a screaming child. The FAA claims the metric for “significant” jet noise—meaning the amount at which homeowners can be eligible for soundproofing subsidies—is a day-night sound level average of 65 decibels. But only those residences within the FAA’s noise contour map (Sauganash Woods and most other Northwest Side neighborhoods are not) qualify for the soundproofing.

Continuing along the street, as the planes pass overhead about every 90 seconds, we see JP’s neighbor Art, a Chicago cop, working in his garage. Art and his wife spent $6,000 of their own money on foam insulation for the attic—but it’s provided only minor relief. “There are times you wonder if one is going to land in your bedroom,” Art says.

Evening settles in, and JP and I sit in his family room to watch the Bears-Packers game. Every once in a while, a plane whizzes by, which actually provides a welcome distraction from the historic pummeling the Packers are giving the Bears. After the game, my hosts head to bed, and I try to get some sleep on the couch.

A few minutes later, around 11, the jets start rumbling by again, often in 30-second intervals. Using radar and tracking apps on my iPhone, I watch the dots as they approach: At 11:55, a Boeing 747 Yangtze River Express from Shanghai blows in at 1,300 feet. At 11:56, an Airbus from Phoenix roars over the house. The last plane I see on the screen before dozing off at 12:30 a.m. is a Cessna coming in from Green Bay. (Jay Cutler’s private jet?)

When the sun comes up, I grab some coffee and sit on the back porch and notice that planes are now eastbound. There’s still a procession overhead, but the planes are not as frequent as the night before, and they’re at a higher altitude (at least 3,000 feet). “This is how it used to be,” Mary says, offering me some waffles. By the time I leave at noon, however, the westbound traffic has returned, and I count 10 planes in one 10-minute span. “We’ll take our share,” Mary says. “But our share shouldn’t be 20 hours a day.”

A few days later, I’m still obsessed with watching the plane traffic on my phone’s radar app and decide to see how bad the noise is closer to the airport. I purchase a $30 noise monitor at RadioShack and follow the blinking jets on my phone’s screen to Schiller Park. As I’m driving west on Lawrence Avenue, I’m jolted by a plane howling no more than 500 feet above me. An Old Style sign at Ken’s Lounge grabs my attention, so I head into the dive bar and ask the feisty blond owner if she’s noticed any changes since the new flight patterns.

“Oh, you mean shelves falling down and nails rattling out of the walls?” she says. “I go outside and I feel like I can shake hands with the pilot. That’s how low they are.”

She explains that before the runway changes, planes primarily flew over the Kennedy Expressway, a mile to the north. Then she walks me down to the basement to show me the mounds of dirt piled underneath the crumbling foundation. “It was always bad, but we lived with it,” she says.

O’Hare opened in 1949; the small brick structure housing Ken’s Lounge was built in 1911. For 65 years, the two coexisted. Only one may survive.

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