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A complete guide to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport

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What you should know about the nation’s busiest airport

The interior of the Terminal 1 tunnel in the Chicago O’Hare airport. The walls are multicolored.
The multicolored Terminal 1 tunnel is one of O’Hare’s most eye-catching features.

Chicago was established through its rivers and railroads, but the metropolis owes much of growth into a global city to O’Hare International Airport. It’s the nation’s busiest airport serving as a hub for major airlines and a destination for more than 83 million passengers every year.

Several major architects submitted plans for the airport’s massive expansion earlier this year. Studio Gang’s Jeanne Gang was selected to move forward with a Y-shaped terminal design with groves of trees and native prairie landscaping.

While those new features are years away, here’s what you should know about ever-expanding O’Hare Airport (aside from its reputation for delays).

A history of O’Hare Airport

The 7,600-acre airport we know as O’Hare started as a factory in 1942 for Douglas C-54 aircraft during World War II. After the conflict and the departure of Douglas, the field was renamed Orchard Field Airport after the nearby community of Orchard Place. O’Hare’s three-letter IATA code of “ORD” is a vestige of this earlier name.

In 1945 the City of Chicago selected Orchard Field to meet the needs of its growing civilian aviation demands. Four years later, the airport was renamed O’Hare International Airport after World War II naval aviator Edward “Butch” O’Hare. A replica of Lieutenant Commander O’Hare’s Grumman Wildcat can be seen on display in Terminal 2.

Though Midway Airport had initially established itself as Chicago’s air field of choice, it lacked runways long enough to handle the larger, heavier planes of the dawning jet age. O’Hare underwent major expansions in the 1950s and 1960s and transformed into the sprawling airport we see today.

The interior of the Chicago O’Hare airport. There is a grey and white checkered floor. The ceiling is glass with white support beams. There are people walking with luggage. Shutterstock

Notable design and architecture

In 1987, O’Hare cut the ribbon on its Helmut Jahn-designed United terminal. Featuring barrel-vaulted steel frame concourses with skylights, the postmodern design was meant to evoke both light and airiness while drawing on architectural influences from the golden age of rail travel. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger called it an “homage to the classic train sheds, with a nod in the direction of the [Victorian era] Crystal Palace.”

Perhaps O’Hare’s most iconic bit of architecture is it’s underground tunnel between the B and C concourses in Terminal 1. A series of moving walkways connect underneath an 800-foot rainbow neon tubes that light up and reflect off overhead mirrors.

Other notable buildings include the midcentury modern rotunda, designed by architect Gertrude Kerbis in 1963, which is located between Terminals 2 and 3. Though no longer in use, the airport’s old 1960s-era control tower was designed by the late, great architect I.M. Pei.

Building for the future

The biggest changes for O’Hare are yet to come. The city is moving ahead with an ambitious $8.5 billion plan to bring the airport into the 21st century. The centerpiece will be a massive, 2.2 million-square-foot O’Hare Global Terminal set to replace Terminal 2.

Designed by a team of architects led by Chicago-based firm Studio Gang, the triangular building includes a spacious arrival hall, new gates, concessions, public lounges, and improved security checkpoints. Construction is expected to be completed by 2028.

The interior of Chicago O’Hare airport. There is a ceiling with angled wooden beams and a skylight. There are trees, shops, and escalators. Studio ORD

In the meantime, work will also start on a pair of satellite concourses just west of the upcoming Global Terminal. Spanning a combined 1.2 million square feet, the SOM-designed buildings will connect to the rest of the airport via underground tunnels. Work could begin as early as 2022. A project to expand Terminal 5 is already underway.

Elon Musk pitched Chicago a high-speed express rail connection between downtown Chicago and the airport. While former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was enthusiastic about the idea and partnership with the billionaire entrepreneur—that plan is likely never getting off the ground.

What you might not know about the airport

  • O’Hare International Airport would be primarily located outside of Chicago City limits if not for a small, isthmus-like strip running along Foster Avenue. This narrow, 200-foot-wide extension of Chicago’s boundaries puts O’Hare—and its sizable tax revenues—under the oversight of City Hall.
  • Occasionally larges plumes of black smoke can often be seen rising from ORD, giving the appearance of a disaster. Despite the ominous display, the smoke is actually caused by fire crews training on a reusable mock airframe.
  • In addition to traditional landscaping equipment, the airport brings in a grazing herd of goats, sheep, and donkeys to keep overgrown grass and weeds in check. The process removes habitats for birds, squirrels, and other small animals that can present a threat to jet engines.