Rosemarie Andolino
Rosemarie Andolino is leading O’Hare International Airport’s green initiative.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and Chicago Department of Aviation commissioner Rosemarie “Rosie” Andolino is already on her fifth—or maybe sixth—cup of coffee with cream. “I lost track a few hours ago,” she jokes as she grabs a seat by O’Hare International Airport’s new aeroponic garden in Terminal 3.

It’s the first garden of its kind in the world, with 26 tall white silos filled with plants like basil, thyme, and tomatoes that sit under big greenhouse lamps in an open-air section surrounded by small tables and chairs grouped like those in a café. A proprietary soilless mixture of water and nutrients are piped up the stacks to feed each tower. Once ripened, the fresh herbs and vegetables are picked and used at airport restaurants like Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera, Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, Blackhawks Restaurant, and Tuscany for a farm-to-table experience.

It’s just one of Andolino’s many initiatives to create a more “green” aviation environment. Between them, Chicago’s two airports now have 333,000 square feet of vegetated green roofs on 14 buildings. On the east side of the 8,000-acre O’Hare airport there are 28 beehives. In late July, goats, sheep, llamas, and wild burrows were brought in to “mow” the northeast corner of O’Hare, the second busiest airport in the world. By the end of 2013, concessions and restaurants at both airports will no longer use any plates or utensils made of Styrofoam or petroleum products. By 2015, Andolino has pledged that both airports will reduce their energy consumption by 15 percent. She’s also helping spearhead discussions about adding solar and wind turbines to the airports, and the use of more biofuels in Chicago via the newly created Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative, which encompasses a 12-state region.

The herb garden in Terminal 3
The herb garden in Terminal 3.

This month, Andolino will help facilitate the sixth annual Airports Going Green Conference (November 12–14) at the Chicago Mart Plaza Holiday Inn to discuss sustainability in aviation. “We came up with the idea of Airports Going Green, since no one was focusing on it,” Andolino says. “It’s about learning and sharing best practices. That’s been very helpful for all of us; whether it’s mistakes or successes, we try to build on that. It sets the bar and challenges us to do better.”

It’s a passion that Andolino attributes to her time with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed Andolino in 2003 to oversee the $8 billion expansion project at O’Hare International Airport (also called the O’Hare Modernization Project). With a vast number of stakeholders including air traffic controllers, first responders, project managers, engineers, and contractors, Andolino calls the O’Hare expansion project a well-choreographed “shotgun marriage.” “Mayor Daley was very adamant that I go out and talk to all the elected officials around the airport and let them know what was happening,” says Andolino, whom Daley named the Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner in 2009. “It dispelled a lot of the misinformation out there by creating a personal relationship.”

Goats graze in the airport field.
Goats graze in the airport field.

Andolino says one of the best things she initially did was walk the expansion area with the construction crew to understand their specific problems and build trust. From there, the team used the US Green Building Council’s framework and created new guidelines and standards prior to the initial runway expansion to incorporate more environmentally friendly techniques such as reusing 98 percent of all construction demolition materials—including 575,000 tons of asphalt grindings and crushed concrete aggregate, which has resulted in $4.5 million in savings. “It was a lot of pressure, and there wasn’t much room for error,” Andolino says. “My job was to remove obstacles and get the job done.” Even though United and American Airlines threatened to block the project, Andolino says, “we are on schedule and under budget.”

This fall, the last runway of the first expansion phase at O’Hare will open. By 2015, another runway and a new air traffic control tower open, and a year later an $800 million intermodal facility for a consolidated rental car and parking facility is scheduled to open. As the commissioner, Andolino is also overseeing the possible privatization of Midway International Airport, the distribution of $300 million in concessions contracts, and the $2 million conversion of an existing building at O’Hare’s International Terminal into a refrigerated perishable cargo center for food, flowers, and pharmaceuticals—not to mention the safety of 86 million passengers that travel through both Chicago airports annually. Under Andolino, O’Hare is also the first airport in the US to test a new Automated Passport Control program where holders of US passports can use self-serve kiosks to reduce their check-in time.

Andolino medals
Andolino has received awards from the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (TOP LEFT) and the AAAE Board of Directors (RIGHT), as well as the Lithuanian Medal of Honor (BOTTOM).

Has it been easy? Andolino laughs at the question. “No, but I’ve learned along the way,” she says. “For me, it’s really about surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, working hard, and learning from them.” A Chicago native with Sicilian roots, Andolino began her childhood in the Hermosa neighborhood near Fullerton and Cicero Avenues before moving to Elk Grove. At age 12, she began working at the Golden Tiara, her grandfather’s banquet-hall-turned-bingo-parlor, on Chicago’s Northwest side. “I would spend the weekends at the bingo hall with my dad, bussing trays, ringing up sales, and working concessions,” says Andolino, whose father was a house painter and whose mother worked as a bank teller and part-time retail clerk. “It taught me that in order to have things, you had to work for them.”

While going to school for marketing at DePaul University, Andolino worked as a makeup counter artist for Revlon. After graduating, she began working for the city of Chicago and climbed the political ranks to become the First Deputy Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development during the Daley administration. These days, Andolino is one of the few holdovers from the Daley administration working for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team. “There was a quick learning curve, but it’s been fun and exciting,” says Andolino, who lives with her husband in the Chicago neighborhood of McKinley Park. “Both mayors have been very interested in the airports; it’s the economic engine for the city. Both are very impatient and want things done yesterday. This is about meeting and embracing what the city is doing. We aren’t an island. We are looking for new sources of energy, ensuring more recycling and waste water use to be more sustainable.”

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>