Heritage and Story of O’Hare International Airport

O’Hare International Airport is among the most well-known and busy airports in the world. Soon after the opening of Chicago Midway Airport, it became clear that the city would need an additional airport due to high demand and travelers. The history of the O’Hare airport began in 1945 when a Site Selection Committee, appointed by the mayor Edward Kelly, picked a location for the airport – Orchard Field. The field used to be a Douglas aircraft assembly plant with four concrete runways in the northwest side of Chicago. Douglas’s company’s contract ended in 1945, and the company decided on concentrating commercial production at its headquarters in Santa Monica, California. After the Douglas Company left, the complex was named as Orchard Field Airport and got an IATA Code ORD.

O’Hare International Airport got its name in 1949 to honor a Medal of Honor recipient naval aviator Lt. Cmdr. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, who died in the World War II. Although the name of the airport changed, the IATA Code ORD remained unchanged, resulting in O’Hare to be one of few airports with IATA Code that has no connection to its name or metropolitan area. In 1955 the airport opened to the commercial air traffic and served 176,902 passengers that same year. Although $25 million was invested in O’Hare, Midway Airport remained to be the busiest at the time and had much more passengers than O’Hare did. Two years later, the new, fifth runway was added to the airport. Soon after, the first international terminal opened at the airport. Official Airline guide estimated 36 weekly departures from O’Hare in April of 1957, while Midway had 414. The non-stop flight from Paris to Chicago arrived to celebrate this special occasion in 1958. By the end of 1958, 22,498 passengers used the terminal for international travel.

Although Midway used to be the busiest airport, there just was not enough space for commercial jet transports at the one-square-mile airport, so most of the Midway traffic moved to O’Hare and soon made it the busiest airport in the world, serving 10 million passengers per year in 1962. By 1965 the annual number of passengers at O’Hare doubled to 20 million. Three years later the sixth runway opened at the airport, and the same year, in 1968, the passenger number reached 30 million per year. The airport continued to expand and got the seventh runway in 1971. Soon after a 10-story hotel – O’Hare Hilton Hotel opened in front of the terminals for passengers traveling through the airport. Because of the traffic increase, and as a part of the airport expands, the six-story parking facility opened at the airport in 1974. The number of passengers kept increasing and reached 40 million in 1976.

Terminals became crowded at the airport, so the Chicago government announced $2 billion O’Hare development program in 1983 and the concourse L opened at Terminal 3 in 1984, housing Delta Air Lines. In 1985 the Interim International terminal opened at the airport. The numbers kept increasing and in 1997 70 million passengers traveled through the airport. In 2001 the Mayor of Chicago announced the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) to reconfigure the airfield into a parallel and modern runway layout. The construction is on-going even today, but some phases have been completed and drastically improved the airport’s performance.