Chicago may have been founded based on its river and canals and grew thanks to the railroads, but the metropolis owes much of its status as a global city to O’Hare International Airport. O’Hare is the nation’s busiest airport and serves as a dual hub for both United and American airlines. Some travelers might find Chicago’s Midway Airport to be a more convenient alternative, but O’Hare is still the Second City’s primary gateway to the world.
Despite its intimidating size and reputation for delays, O’Hare is well-designed and relatively easy to get to. As architects and planners work to refine the modern air travel experience, O’Hare continues to adapt and reinvent itself. Here’s everything you need to know about the iconic—and ever-evolving—airport.
History of O’Hare
The 7,600-acre airport we know as O’Hare started life in 1942 as a factory 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.
O’Hare’s notable 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 can be seen between the B and C Concourses of Terminal 1. Traveling between the two areas involves riding a series of moving walkways along an 800-foot-long rainbow-colored tunnel decorated with multicolored tubes of neon light that playfully 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.
Interesting O’Hare facts
- 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.
Getting to O’Hare
The Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line is hands down the most convenient and cost effective way to get to O’Hare from Chicago’s Loop and northern neighborhoods. And with the L terminating right in the center of the airport, access to and from the terminals couldn’t be easier. Picking up the Blue Line to ORD costs the regular $2.25 fare. Leaving O’Hare is a slightly different story as single rides goes for $5.
Another rail option is Metra's North Central Service (NCS). Running between Chicago’s Union Station and suburban Antioch, Illinois, the line stops at the O'Hare Transfer station in nearby Rosemont. From here, travelers can hop aboard the free Airport Transit System (ATS) to access all terminals. The ATS also services Rosemont’s Kiss ‘n’ Fly drop-off point, rental car lots, remote parking, and a PACE Bus terminal.
While public transportation is low-cost and fairly hassle free, arriving by private car, rideshare service, or taxi isn’t too bad either. ORD is easily accessible via several major highways and offers ample—albeit pricey—short- and long-term parking for your personal vehicle as well as designated rideshare pick-up points.
Grabbing a taxi at the airport involves queuing up at taxi stands. The lines can be long during peak hours but tend to move fast. If headed to a popular destination like the Loop, it’s often financially beneficial to split the fare with a friendly stranger.
Where to eat
Your pack of inflight pretzels may not go far to satisfy your hunger, but luckily O’Hare is continually updating its dining options. Thanks to the addition of local favorites like Goose Island Brewery, the Publican, and Rick Bayless' Tortas Frontera, the airport has stepped up its culinary game in recent years. For a more comprehensive guide to O’Hare food and beverage offerings, be sure to check out Eater Chicago guide.
Tips for travelers
- If traveling internationally to or from Chicago, flying a foreign airline rather than a domestic one can make for a better O’Hare experience. According to TripAdvisor, international carriers routinely enjoy more on-time service than their domestic counterparts. Additionally, Terminal 5 tends to be far less crowded than others.
- O’Hare provides free Wi-Fi internet access in every terminal. Users can log-on by accessing either the “Boingo Hotspot” or “_Free_ORD _Wi-Fi” networks and watching an ad to connect.
- Clearing security is often the longest and most frustrating aspect of the O’Hare experience. Registering for TSA Pre-Check helps and is a no-brainer for frequent flyers. Travelers with disabilities are offered expedited screening at TSA checkpoints. Relief areas for service animals are also available outside security.
- Passengers seeking a moment of tranquility can head to the dedicated Yoga Room located on the mezzanine level of the Terminal 3 Rotunda. The space offers bamboo wood flooring, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and exercise mats. Guests can also find a moment of zen in the nearby aeroponic garden.
- Traveling with little ones? O’Hare offers a Mothers Room for nursing parents in Terminals 1, 2, 3, and 5. Unfortunately, the airport closed its “Kids on the Fly” play area in Terminal 2, but new child-friendly areas are planned in upcoming additions.
Building for the future
Since its founding, O’Hare International Airport has been in a nearly constant state of renovation and reinvention. But the biggest changes are yet to come.
Chicago’s Department of Aviation is moving forward 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.
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.
A plan to build a high-speed express rail connection between downtown Chicago and the airport remains elusive. Although previous Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a partnership with billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his Boring Company to build a privately-funded tunnel system using electromagnetic pods, there’s little evidence that the project remains a priority of the Lightfoot administration.