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This older question asks at what interval planes take off and land from ORD. The accepted answer (one takeoff or landing every 30-40 seconds) jives with my math: 2416 operations a day on average, with winds in a non-cardinal direction all those flights must use just two runways, so worst-case each runway would have a plane rolling along it every 75 seconds round the clock (so a plane takes off or lands from somewhere in the airport every 37.5 seconds).

My question is, how? At that rate, approaching planes would be spaced a scant two and a half minutes apart, and as soon as a landing plane passed over the numbers, a departing plane would be told to line up, then to take off as soon as the landing plane had cleared the runway, and if they hesitate even a few seconds the plane behind them would have to go around. How is this traffic density maintained long-term, especially since, like any airport, it has peak periods of activity exceeding the average?

Follow-up question; is ORD as bad as it gets, or are there "denser" airports with lower total aircraft movements but fewer runways? I heard Heathrow is so bad its airspace is ICAO Class A, prohibiting VFR flights entirely, in part due to the fact the airport handles practically every international flight into London on just two runways.

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    $\begingroup$ According to the FAA, AirVenture gets mighty close this time of year. $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Jul 22 '15 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ Not too bad; "over 10,000 planes" visiting a Delta-size airport with only one usable runway in any given wind direction over a period of 7 days. Assuming they're all flown to the airport, stay on the ground for the event, then fly out in a perfectly spaced schedule 24/7 through those 7 days, the runway would see an aircraft every 30 seconds. What's even more likely is that a majority of those aircraft add another TO/L for at least one demo flight, further increasing traffic. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 22 '15 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ They have 2 North/South runways - they convert a taxiway into a runway! See the notam (pdf) around page 13 or so $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Jul 23 '15 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ Very cool. Looks like they also use 9/27 concurrently, so they have three active runways in calm winds. Still a nightmare; approaches to runways 18L and R require staying above 1500'AGL until they pass 9/27, making for a pretty steep glide slope. They also can't use 36R (the converted taxiway) for departures as departing from 36L requires a serious cut to the right to avoid departing traffic on runway 9. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 23 '15 at 0:23
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Chicago runs simultaneous triple parallel approaches. And as soon as an aircraft clears the runway, another one is allowed to cross the threshold.

Chicago Tower actually does not do the bulk of the sequencing of aircraft. Chicago TRACON actually sequences the aircraft before they are handed to the Tower. Even before that, Chicago ARTCC begins to sequence inbound aircraft. Similarly, aircraft are handed to departure (TRACON) almost immediately after taking off. Departure procedures are optimized for safety and efficiency.

This figure breaks down runway usage percentage for arrivals and departures in April 2015 (7am - 10pm traffic)(source paper). It highlights the common westbound landing flow with triple parallel runways. You can also see two diverging runways used for the bulk of departures, with sporadic usage of others.

ORD Arrival and Departure Runway Percentages

Note that this is all after an airport runway overhaul. Consider that 2014 saw almost a 10% decrease in operations from the year 2005. Having talked to controllers that have put in time at Chicago Tower, it is as crazy to handle as humanly possible.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice. I notice the southern E/W runway is labelled 10/28C. Are there plans for 10/28R south of the cargo complex? $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 24 '15 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, see the diagram in another question. $\endgroup$ – digitgopher Jul 24 '15 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ Amazing answer. I was also wondering, as the OP asked "is ORD as bad as it gets, or are there [even] "denser" airports with lower total aircraft movements but fewer runways" .. ??? $\endgroup$ – Fattie May 17 '17 at 18:50

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