Image: O'Hare traveler
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP file
A lone traveler walks in the deserted baggage claim area for American Airlines at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago earlier this year.
updated 9/18/2008 11:43:07 AM ET 2008-09-18T15:43:07

A new Chicago airport or a vast expansion of one of the city’s existing airports will be necessary to keep pace with booming demand for air travel in the coming decades, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration said.

That’s in addition to an ongoing $15 billion expansion of O’Hare International Airport, Robert Sturgell, the FAA’s acting administrator, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Chicago plays too vital a role as an aviation hub not to further upgrade airport capacity, Sturgell said, adding that he appreciated the fierce resistance such projects can generate, including from residents worried about noise and air pollution.

“It takes a lot of local political will to move new runways and airports forward,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

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Other cities like New York and Atlanta will also need new airports or ambitious expansion projects, he said.

More than a dozen new runways have opened in the United States since 2000, with three more opening this November, including at O’Hare.

But Sturgell said that won’t suffice over the long run.

Slideshow: Going for the gold Despite a drop in flights this year as high fuel prices cut into airline profits, the number of air travelers could double to 1 billion annually over the next decade, Sturgell said. And since newer, streamlined planes will carry fewer passengers, the total number of planes flying in and out of airports could increase at an even faster rate, he said.

In a 2007 report, the FAA noted that just two major airports have opened in the last 40 years — Dallas- Fort Worth and Denver International. As many as four would have to be built over the next 20 to 30 years, Sturgell said.

New airports and runway expansions would have to happen in conjunction with implementation of a new satellite-guided air traffic system, dubbed NextGen, Sturgell said. That would replace the current, radar-based system, which deploys 1950s-era radar technology.

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