I love Christmas.
Every year I look forward to coming home for Christmas, and next time I (and thousands of others) will be sure not to include a connection via Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in my itinerary.
I flew via ORD on December 23rd, arriving from Tokyo. I spent nearly 7 hours in the International Arrivals terminal before being able to escape, and just barely made my last possible connection flight of the evening, scheduled to leave a full eight hours after my arrival. Had I come in from Amsterdam instead of Tokyo, I’d have spent more time waiting to leave the arrivals hall than I had onboard the plane.
Chicago was experiencing record-cold temperatures (for December) and had been hit the day before with a few inches of snow. I can’t blame O’Hare for that, but roads were clear and people could get around. It was really only cold that was the issue, which any public service in Chicago should be equipped to handle.
Fortunately, the end result was a disaster only of inconvenience and aggravation, nothing tragic. But given that it had the potential to be so much worse, and was exacerbated by so many correctable oversights, I decided to document this from an experience design perspective. Here I will suggest 10 ways that O’Hare could have better served its passengers, starting with some wishful thinking and progressing into what should be expected as bare minimum requirements.
Part I: Would have been nice, but not going to happen…
I won’t spend much time here, as I want to focus on actionable solutions. But I’ll start with touching on a few curious design decisions that have gone into O’Hare’s expansion over time.
1. Redesign the airport
I’m fully aware that hundreds of factors have gone into O’Hare’s development–including the introduction of (International) Terminal 5 in 1993–that I’m not aware of.
I will assume there were valid justifications for the design decisions that have been made, but they’ve unfortunately resulted in a poorly designed airport. Terminal 5 is completely isolated from the other terminals, choked off by the Kennedy Expressway, and accessible only via road and outdoor train (which apparently struggles with cold). Given Chicago’s frigid winters, hot summers, and the occasional tornado, it would have made sense to construct the airport train underground. This is a common design method present in comparable airports like Atlanta, Denver and Washington-Dulles, would significantly shorten the train path, and of course, make the train weather-resistant.
Two other criticisms:
- In an arrivals lobby nearly 300 meters long, there is just one set of bathrooms. The entire space is narrow, cramped, and difficult to navigate as is, so I’d expect at least one set of bathrooms at each end of the hall.
- It is not only transit passengers who need to get from T5 to other terminals. The Chicago Transit Authority blue line subway station–which accommodates thousands of passengers daily–is nestled in between Terminals 1, 2 and 3. So the inter-terminal transfer train is a bottleneck not only for transit passengers, but also Chicago-destination passengers using public transportation, making a smooth operation even more critical.
2. Build a better train
Embarrassingly, O’Hare’s website along with posters in the Arrivals hall boast of a “fast and reliable” Airport Transit System that was updated in November 2021 (!!!). The ATS has gone through extensive and rigorous testing to ensure safe, reliable and efficient operations…
Last Friday’s weather was cold; the high temperature never reached 0°C (32°F). But there was no snow, and despite news that it was the coldest ever December day recorded in Chicago, this weather is not unprecedented. According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago’s high temperature has remained at zero degrees or lower on only 64 days in 149 years of official records. But that means Chicago’s high temperature has remained at zero degrees or lower on 64 days–certainly enough to warrant accommodation in minimum design requirements.
That the train failed to work because of extreme–but not unprecedented–cold is an inexcusable failure for a system only a year old. I wonder if there are any consequences to the contractors who clearly skimped on some things during the building process?
Part II: Really should be possible, but I understand if not…
I believe the first two criticisms are valid, but there’s not much that can be done about them today. So from here forward, I’ll focus on actionable solutions, ranging from most difficult to implement to easiest. This first one would require outstanding preparation and should be possible in an emergency situation, but I understand there are logistical challenges involved.
3. Contingency design for pedestrians
In the six hours I spent in Terminal 5, I overheard the few staff working being asked several times if it was possible to walk to the other terminals, only to reply that access is cut off by a freeway. Even if there was a pedestrian bridge over the freeway, which would presumably not be too expensive, the walk to Terminal 1 via the existing taxi lane would be a little bit over a mile (nearly 2km).
However, the actual distance between T5 and the others is not very far as the crow flies, and so I don’t think it is beyond reason, in an emergency situation, to barricade a short section of taxiway and allow for pedestrians to walk from T5 to the others via the extension wing of Terminal 3.
This would require a few concessions:
- Blocking off an existing taxiway, but there are multiple others on the opposite side of the terminals.
- Blocking off 11 gates (M1-M6 in Terminal 5 and L20-L24 in Terminal 3). Given that there are 191 gates in the airport and fewer flights operating than normal, I don’t think this would be a huge problem.
- There would have to be a barrier set up where the L20-24 gates branch off from the others, to ensure pedestrians are funneled out pre-security in T3. Likewise, one would have to be set up to separate the M1-M6 branch from the rest of T5.
- Passengers would have to walk outside in frigid temperatures, but keep in mind that this would be voluntary (buses would still be available), and the straight-line distance from M1 to L24 is about 300 meters. It would also require stairs, but transit passengers would only have their carry-on luggage, as checked luggage is left in T5 Arrivals and transferred by the airline. Even if only a quarter of transit passengers elected to walk, it would significantly reduce the burden on buses.
This would not be easy, but with proper planning, I also don’t think it would be terribly difficult. The below diagram highlights what areas would need to be blocked off (highlighted boxes) and where temporary barricades would need to be installed. This would get passengers to Terminal 3, from which you can walk to the other terminals indoors (albeit, still a 500 meter walk to T1).
Part III: Definitely possible…
The next three suggestions are significantly easier than the first, but still require some degree of coordination amongst different parties within the airport.
4. Make CBP make sense
Like Item #1, I acknowledge that there are factors into Customs & Border Patrol decisions that I’m not privy to, which the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) may or may not have influence over.
But it seems like CBP is going in the opposite direction of progress, with a couple of observations that CDA could certainly apply some pressure about:
US and foreign passports are grouped together
In most international airports, including in the US, there are separate lines for home-country and “other” passports. This makes sense, given that most home-country passports are simply looked at–few questions asked, no stamps–whereas some foreign visitors require additional paperwork and screening.
Why, then, would you not separate the two? At least this would help clear some of the cluster of people waiting in the immigration hall, as US passports would be funneled through much more quickly. I don’t advocate this experience for foreign visitors, but this is typically just how it goes; I don’t expect to fly through immigration when visiting any other country, either.
Mobile Passport kiosks have been removed
CBP introduced Automated Passport Control in 2016 and it seemingly worked like a charm–I’ve used it in O’Hare specifically in the past. And now, for some reason, it’s gone, despite still being flaunted on the FlyChicago website. A functional mobile passport process reduces the burden on human agents, so I can’t understand why the airport would remove a functionality that already proved successful in the past. There must be a reason, but I sure can’t think of one.
5. Organize buses to manage capacity
In the 3.5 hours I spent waiting for a bus, there was one coming about every 10 minutes. Assuming 50 people to a bus (a generous estimate, given that many have luggage), that’s about 300 people an hour–less than a single arriving A350 or Boeing 777.
By contrast, the Airport Transit System runs every 3-5 minutes (let’s assume closer to every 3 minutes during peak arrival times) and has capacity for 147 passengers. That means moving nearly 3,000 people an hour.
No matter the reason, making accommodation for 300 people an hour to substitute for a system failure designed to move 10x that amount is not acceptable, especially on one of the busiest travel days of the year. To match train capacity, O’Hare would have to provide a bus every minute. Maybe that’s not possible, but they could have certainly done better than a bus every 10 minutes.
6. Snacks and refreshments
Given the brutal combination of weather and lack of preparation, the airport could have provided water and/or small snacks. There is one single McDonald’s for a food option in the arrivals hall–no other convenience stores–with thousands of people stuck there for 6+ hours.
I’d assume airports are all stocked with emergency supplies, so this would have been a relatively low-cost, low-effort way of looking after rightfully stressed and frustrated passengers.
Part IV: Really should be expected…
The next two suggestions are even easier to implement than the others so far. These should be minimum expectations in the event of any abnormal operational problem.
7. Properly prioritize working resources
At one particularly frustrating point as I neared the front of the bus queue, two regular-sized buses pulled up back-to-back. Both said “Lot F” (long-term parking) on the destination display, which I assumed would be re-routed. Sure enough, the guy managing the front of the bus queue confirmed that both were indeed going to Lot F.
You have a squeeze on buses and manpower, you have thousands of passengers trying to transit to other flights (with hundreds more trying to take the subway to town), and you prioritize (or fail to de-prioritize) remote parking? Unless ORD has hard data showing that the majority of international arrival passengers are going to remote parking (which I’m sure isn’t the case), these should have been immediately redeployed to help connect the terminals.
On top of that, at one point an airport staffer came through on a machine–I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to–polishing the floor. That was certainly not the most pressing thing to attend to in that moment, and so even if the guy is trained to do nothing else, he would have been more useful holding up a sign with some information (more on this shortly), or simply getting out of the way.
8. Put adequate retractable belt barriers in place
With thousands of passengers flooding the arrivals hall, there were about 20 meters of retractable belt barriers in place, only at the very front of the bus queue (by “A” and “B” in the diagram below). It’s not like the airport doesn’t have them on hand; we’ve all seen miles of them at check-in counters. It would have been very easy to have barriers in place as people enter the hall to funnel traffic properly from the beginning.
I took the trouble of diagramming what actually played out, which I’ll explain below:
(A): The vast majority of arrivals, represented by the green dots that formed the rough queue I spent 3+ hours in. At several points, especially around “F”, “D” and “E” there were easy opportunities to cut in, which people took advantage of without consequence.
(B): A branch of the bus queue that was going to rental car shuttles. Note that the only retractable barriers (dashed blue lines) in the entire hall were near here.
(C): Taxi and ride-share cluster. I didn’t spend much time at that end, but when I walked through there for a bathroom stop, I saw a lot of confusion.
(D): Supposedly a pick-up area for hotel shuttles, with an unusually large cluster of people. When I got to the front, it became obvious that people had been skipping the bus queue here and jumping on inter-terminal buses anyway.
(E): This group blatantly took advantage of a lack of crowd control, brazenly skipping the bus queue and daring anyone to stop them.
(F): An intersection of chaos, where nobody was clear on where to go. The gray dots represent people waiting to greet arriving passengers.
The red cluster of McDonald’s customers added to the bus queue confusion, while the blue dots represent the only places where I saw an airport employee standing. Also, contrary to what the diagram shows, there were no unoccupied areas of the hall–I simplified the diagram for the sake of explanation.
Part V: Shocking negligence…
And finally, a couple of more suggestions that I was shocked were not already happening.
9. Assign police officers to manage line & control crowd
It was cold in Chicago, but the storm had ended the previous day and roads were remarkably well cleared. There shouldn’t have been a significant shortage of airport staff, but in case there was, it shouldn’t have been difficult to bring in police support to help manage the crowd. Given that there were no barriers set up, part of the frustration of the bus queue was that, without any real deterrent, people were constantly cutting the line. It would have only taken a few police officers (a few more without more belt barriers) to not only help people know where to go, but also to act as a deterrent from people with ideas to cut the queue.
10. Put information on a white board
When I first entered the arrivals hall after clearing immigration, there was nothing giving any information. No staff, no signboard…nothing. The few staff who were working were scattered throughout the hall, not positioned where people first entered to offer clear instructions.
Every office in the world has rolling whiteboards, which I’m sure are available at O’Hare as well. I’m shocked that it never occurred to anyone to roll a few of these out to give some direction and reduce the burden on the staff who were working.
It’s not like O’Hare isn’t used to crowds. It is the world’s most connected airport, and has been the world’s busiest by annual passenger movements more than 30 times (and is still comfortably in the top 5).
It is really difficult to give ORD a pass on how it handled the December storm, when you factor in:
- That ORD is one of the busiest airports in the world;
- Its dependency on the Air Transit System as a functional bottleneck;
- Chicago’s extreme weather history;
- A storm that was entirely predicted that did not take anyone by surprise, and;
- The busiest travel day of the year.
I’m writing this article is in hopes of encouraging CDA to take the necessary precautions to make sure this never happens again. The news stories and press conferences all chalked it up to extreme weather and holiday traffic, but so many of these problems were easily correctable with the right consideration.
I fear that nobody in CDA understands how little else would have had to go wrong for a tragic outcome to occur. With a lack of organization and crowd control, I saw one family with two infants closed out of a bus, scrambling to find adequate blankets to keep the babies from freezing. The crowd was surprisingly calm given the situation, which I believe is partly due to people being in the holiday spirit.
But had there been just a few impatient, impulsive types–which I’d actually expect among thousands–all hell could have broken loose. I was in Seoul around Halloween, when 158 people died in a crowd crush. Not to mention mass shootings, of which 600 have already occurred in the US in 2022 (and have happened in airports around the world). These things really happen, and become much more likely in stressful, tense, chaotic situations. They are not something we ever would expect, but during my 6+ hours in T5, I was consciously aware of the risk of things going wrong. And if it did, it’s very clear that the airport would have been grossly unprepared with any sort of disaster response.
Finally, from an empathetic perspective, I can’t even begin to imagine how the hundreds of travelers with restless young kids, exhausted elderly people or those who struggle with English felt.
I believe there is a team of people managing O’Hare who do care. Nobody wants to be bad at their job, and I’d imagine anybody drawn to work in public service has a general interest in the common good. I understand there are thousands of factors that contribute to this kind of outcome, some more controllable than others, but I hope the right people will take these suggestions to heart and work ensure better experiences for the millions of passengers to come.