Ever since Emirates began service with the world’s largest commercial airliner to New York’s JFK Airport in 2008, airlines have been gradually adding Airbus A380 service to nearly every major international airport in the United States. The exceptions to this were Newark (EWR) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD).  O’Hare and Newark are the only two airports in the top ten in international passengers not to have regularly scheduled A380 service. Seven of the other eight airports (Atlanta being the only exception) have seen regularly scheduled A380 services from more than one airline.  This is changing for Chicago O’Hare next year.

Early this morning, London based British Airways loaded in the first regularly scheduled A380 service to Chicago. Beginning May 8th, the A380 will replace the Boeing 747-400 on flight 294/295; the A380 will depart London Heathrow (LHR) as BA295 at 10:50 and arrive in Chicago at 13:25 (1:25 P.M. local time). It will make its return journey as BA294 departing Chicago at 17:30 (5:30 P.M. local time) and arriving in London at 07:20 the next morning.

The schedule under which ORD’s first regular scheduled A380 service will operate under. (Photo: British Airways)

The main hold up in preventing an airline from flying the A380 to Chicago was the lack of a gate that could handle an aircraft of such size as that of the A380. In early 2016, the Chicago Department of Aviation began work on a single gate at O’Hare’s international terminal 5 to accommodate the A380. The $4.8 million project was completed in the summer of 2016 and included adding another jet bridge (the only dual jet bridge gate at ORD besides United’s terminal 1), redoing the concrete and underground utilities beneath the gate, and upgrading the electricity and air conditioning systems.

Emirates flew a one-off test flight with an A380 on July 19th to experiment with the possibility of scheduling regular A380 services in the future. The test flight did not go as planned, however. Upon parking at the gate, the upper deck jet bridge was improperly moved into position, striking the aircraft and creating a large dent in the side it. Mechanics were able to inspect the aircraft and determined it was good to fly back to Dubai. After the inspection, the A380 departed back to Dubai about an hour late.

Early speculation was that both British Airways and Emirates, as well as Lufthansa, would be interested in bringing the A380 to Chicago. The Emirates plans never happened. This could be due to the damage the aircraft sustained during the test flight or could be due to the gradual decline in U.S. service from Emirates (although Chicago has one of the highest load factors on  the ME3 of any of their U.S. flights).

The Speedbird A380 has 14 first class open suites with fully-lie flat capabilities. (Photo: British Airways)

Lufthansa’s plan never made much sense, as they arrive at Terminal 5 (as all international arrivals do), and depart from Star Alliance partner United’s terminal 1. While Terminal 1 does feature six gates with two jet bridges, none of them are capable of handling an A380. In order for Lufthansa to continue departing from terminal 1, either Lufthansa or United would have had to foot the bill to upgrade gate B17 to an A380 gate. This would also likely mean the loss of gate B18, as gate B16 is another widebody capable gate which United is already short on.

While there is currently only one A380 capable gate, there are plans for two or three more in the planned expansion of terminal 5. The plan released last year, presents a design to extend terminal 5 and add nine gates. The status of this plan is up in the air, as there has not been much news since the release of the design proposal. The buildings in the way of the expansion were demolished, but construction has since come to a halt. This is concerning because summertime is construction season in Chicago, and no work has been done since the demolition of the abandoned buildings which was completed in early 2017. There are rumblings of concrete work beginning shortly from CDA officials.

Featured photo by Layoverhub writer Alec Mollenhauer

Categories: Industry Talk