I'l bet that headline got your attention. O'Hare (ORD) is a well known airport to anyone who travels regularly. It is the second busiest airport in the world (after Atlanta, on both passengers and flights in/out annually), and it's well known for its delays.
I've flown in and out of ORD more or less every week for the last six years, right after I moved to Chicago for my dream consulting job. In that time ORD has been just as cruel a mistress to me as any other traveler. I've spent countless hours milling the terminals there and at other airports waiting to get back there. However, I've always had a sense of awe when the machine is humming along like a well oiled machine.
A couple of years ago ORD had the worst on time record of any US airport. The majority of the problem lay with scheduling congestion. Most people don't realize how all of the parts fit together to make commercial air travel the safest method in existence. Airlines schedule flights based on supply (gates, planes, crews, etc) and demand (destinations, times of arrival and departure, etc.), and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) is responsible for getting planes safely from gate to gate. So at ORD airlines were scheduling more flights (at peak times - Mon. morning, Thurs. and Fri. Afternoon, etc.) than could safetly take off and land out of and into ORD. There were over 100 flights scheduled in and out per hour, in perfect weather conditions using all runways and maintaining minimal spacing ORD could only handle 94, you do the math. So, with the worst ontime record in the country the FAA, who oversees ATC, stepped in and federally mandated that no more than 88 flights could be scheduled in any given hour.
So, ORD's ontime improved a bit, but it's still consistantly low, and has a reputation for being worse than it is in all reality.
So how in the world can I say ORD is a thing of beauty? Because when it works truly a Modern Marvel (hint hint History channel) it is a thing of beauty. Today my flight pushed back, taxied, and too off all in less than 15 minutes. Who cares you say, what's the big deal. This is the big deal we had to take multiple taxiways, wait in line behind 4 planes, coordinate with the 4 planes on the intersecting runway, oh and by the way, land 4 planes on our runway as well. That's taxing from one terminal away, and be the 12th plane in line for all intents and purposes. It was amazing.
I watched the line in front of us on the taxiway trying to determine which runway we were going to use, spotted the taxi line at the intersecting runway, and watched the finely orchestrated performance. An American MD-80 (I can't believe those still fly). Too off on the intersecthing runway, a plane landed on our runway 15 seconds after the MD-80 cleared. As soon as it cleared another landed behind it. Two additional planes took off from the intersecting runway, then 3 from our runway, then one more landed, then we rolled out and powered off. As we were nosing off the ground I watched another plane land on a parallel runway on the other side of the airport. As we banked to the south and crossed the southwest corner of the airport I saw another plane landing on a fourth runway, and could see 2 more lined up behind it on their way in.
Tell me that is not a thing of beauty!
Now, take that thing of beauty and add a thunderstorm in the vicinity, high winds causing it to be unsafe to use those parallel runways, passengers who can't figure out how to board effeciently and miss an on time push back, a mechanical delay, the list is endless, so when it works it is a beautiful thing!
Incidently if you you really want to get into the nitty gritty you can always listen to ATC, United broadcasts it on Channel 9 of their audio programming. Or, GQ ran a great article in on of the last couple of issues about ATC, and spent a day at JFK in New York, which is some of the most congested airspace in the world.
I encourage you to sit back and think about all of the orchestrated pieces fluidly working together the next time you fly!