Chicagoland airports give business aircraft operators many choices

 - October 9, 2007, 9:24 AM

At first glance Chicago seems much like a handful of other large metropolitan cities–a pair of airline hubs surrounded by a smattering of general aviation reliever fields. But in Chicago’s case, the center of the airspace is O’Hare International Airport, the world’s busiest (909,530 operations last year). Chicago’s second hub, Midway, relinquished that same title to O’Hare in the 1960s. Ask any O’Hare air traffic controller, though, and they’ll tell you O’Hare is the center of the universe. Indeed, most pilots rate Chicago Tracon and O’Hare Tower controllers as the best.

Like Chicago, a city of neighborhoods, the principal reliever airports–Palwaukee, Waukegan, Meigs, DuPage, Aurora and Gary, Ind.–possess a culture and a following all their own, sometimes tied to the airport, sometimes to the operators there.
O’Hare’s (ORD) single FBO– Signature Flight Support–handles 15,000 general aviation operations annually, most for connecting airline passengers. Despite being a speck on the airport operationally, the FBO will soon break ground for a new facility with a ramp in front of the FBO–a nice change for crews who are now bussed in from their aircraft. Despite talk of a less than friendly atmosphere toward GA, Signature ORD general manager Paul Shira said, “The City of Chicago realizes the necessity of business aviation and works well with us.”

Midway Airport–MDW (ORD 150R/14) ran 278,374 operations last year and nicely integrates an almost-downtown feeling (six miles southwest of the citycenter) with a mix of World War II-era hangars against the backdrop of a massive new airline terminal. You can easily find yourself in front of any of the tailgating Southwest 737s that taxi at warp speed.

Midway is home to a Signature Flight Support, Atlantic Aviation (Jet Aviation is an Atlantic tenant) and Million Air. Midway GA operations suffered considerably from the 10-day City of Chicago and Illinois Department of Aviation (DOA)-imposed shutdown after September 11. The requirement for an IFR flight plan was a death knell for two MDY flight schools as well. Two other MDY flight schools are barely surviving. One FBO spokesman said, “We couldn’t find fault with the spirit of what the city did, but the shutdown gave other airports like Palwaukee and DuPage a huge competitive advantage.”

Jay Hamby, Atlantic Aviation’s regional director, said, “We’re the busiest FBO at Midway and, fortunately, all of our based customers forced to relocate their aircraft after September 11 have returned.” With last year’s service agreement between Signature and NetJets, Atlantic and Signature are about neck-and-neck in total operations.

Anyone who’s played Microsoft Flight Simulator knows Chicago’s lakefront airport, Meigs Field–CGX, (ORD 120R/15), often called the “Coolest Little Airport on the Planet.” Considering its size (31,240 ops last year, with no based aircraft), Meigs has become a poster child for an urban general aviation airport under siege, with publicity the envy of professional communicators everywhere, mostly thanks to Steve Whitney’s Friends of Meigs Field.

The City of Chicago closed Meigs in 1998, but the scrappy little airport refused to die, thanks to FOM and the Illinois government. Chicago mayor Richard Daley expected to close Meigs again this past February, but a last-minute deal gave Meigs life until at least 2006, in return for the go ahead on O’Hare expansion and a green light on the Peotone Airport. Friends of Meigs Field certainly borrowed its motto from Sir Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never, never give up.”

While Meigs and its sole FBO, Signature, offer only a few expensive services from the 50-year-old terminal building, this airport and the people here deliver a soul unmatched by any field around. Blake Fish, Signature’s regional vice president, said the airport’s higher landing and parking fees are the result of low traffic volume. Signature has been unwilling to invest in new facilities because “we’ve been living under a cloud of whether or not the airport will still be here.” To help support the airport and highlight its contribution to Chicago, the local Tuskegee Airmen group works diligently at Meigs alongside the EAA’s Young Eagles, delivering priceless aviation education to kids of all ages.

Palwaukee Airport–PWK (ORD 355R/9), the entrepreneurial dream of George and Charlie Priester, almost shut down before it was bought out in 1986 by the village of Wheeling and the city of Prospect Heights. Since then, new taxiways and ramps have appeared, but not runways since 5,000-ft Runway 16/34 is landlocked. Dozens of GA pilots– members of the vocal Palwaukee Airport Pilots Association (PAPA)– who used to hang out at the demolished Hangar Restaurant, now inhabit the nearby Compass Rose Saturday mornings to talk airport politics.

Priester Aviation, recently purchased by Signature, once the only FBO on the airport, has seen two competitors emerge–North American Jet and Service Aviation. Priester retained its charter operation while Signature took over the jet and piston airplane maintenance facilities. North American Jet executive vice president Cary Winter said, “Palwaukee is highly desirable because of its proximity to downtown Chicago and the city’s north shore.” NAJ opened a new full-service facility in 1998 and is nearing completion on another 25,000-sq-ft hangar. NAJ claims the largest Palwaukee ramp at 150,000 sq ft.

Almost unknown, but still operating, as a Palwaukee FBO, is Service Aviation, currently working from an ancient hangar and a postage-stamp-size ramp on Palwaukee’s southeast corner. The tiny facility sells jet-A and performs piston maintenance, and it is reportedly operating without a lease, an issue that has brought it into conflict with the Palwaukee Municipal Airport Authority. That matter is now in court.

Palwaukee’s $1.76 million operating budget comes from fuel flowage and hangar-rental fees, but does not include any direct community funding. Palwaukee ran 172,000 operations last year and has 72 turbine-powered aircraft among the 342 based here.

Gary/Chicago Airport–GYY (ORD 140R/31) operates under a loose alliance between the City of Chicago and the Gary (Ind.) Airport Authority. The co-op was formed a few years ago to slow progress on the nearby Peotone Airport project. Not surprisingly, since Gary is linked with Chicago, the politics can be confusing, with the existence of both a Gary/Chicago Airport Authority and a Chicago/Gary Airport Authority. The former runs the airport, and the latter entitles Gary to up to 1.5 percent of the passenger facility charges collected at ORD and MDW.

Boeing, now headquartered in Chicago, keeps its company BBJs at Gary since there was no available hangar space at Midway. Will Davis, president of Gary Jet Center, the field’s sole FBO, said, “Ninety-five percent of our customers are Chicago residents.” The airport also hosts five Pan Am airline flights per week. When surface traffic along the Chicago Skyway is light, this Indiana airport is a half-hour trip to Chicago’s Loop.

Nearly half of Gary Airport’s $2.3 million operating budget comes from local property taxes, with the remainder from fuel flowage fees, hangar rentals and casino money. Gary claims to be Chicago’s third airport, but with Peotone getting started, only time will tell.

Chicago Waukegan Airport– UGN (ORD 005R/27) is home to Chicago’s U.S. Coast Guard contingent and a single full-service FBO, DB Aviation, as well as two flight schools and a radio shop. DB Aviation CEO Dave Brittsan said, “Waukegan has location in its favor,” sitting halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Just outside Chicago’s Class B airspace, Waukegan-bound traffic doesn’t often see ATC delays.

Waukegan is sometimes forgotten as a Chicago alternative due to the 45-min drive to the Loop, but some 35 corporations, such as Abbott Labs, Baxter and Snap-On, left Palwaukee years ago for the Waukegan environment and space availability.
A tragic midair collision at UGN in 2000 took the life of popular WGN radio talk show host Bob Collins, a pilot and avid aviation supporter. The private Waukegan control tower had no radar scope at the time. It does now. No local taxes are assessed to run the airport that last year saw 100,000 operations, with 55 jets among 187-based aircraft.

DuPage Airport–DPA (ORD 250R/16), is a glorious corporate field and claims 80 turbine aircraft among its 475 tenants, including five charter operators and six flight schools. DuPage also has an active pilot’s association. Only DuPage Flight Center, nestled snugly beneath the control tower, sells jet-A, leaving maintenance to long-standing DuPage icons such as Mukenschnabl, J.A. Air Center (avionics) and Scott Aviation.

At 2,200 acres, DuPage is by far the largest of the reliever fields, a credit to the political ingenuity of the DuPage Airport Authority and the airport’s $4.71 million annual budget. Some local property tax money is collected annually for debt reduction as well. Brian Kulpin, DuPage’s deputy director of communications, spoke about the changes in DuPage’s makeup: “In 1992, some 35 percent of the fuel pumped here went into turbine aircraft. Today that number is 87 percent.” McDonald’s Corp. calls DuPage home, as do Chicago’s FSDO and NTSB offices. DuPage also owns an 18-hole golf course for pilots with more layover time on their hands than they’d like. DuPage operations topped 188,000 last year. The only blemish to DuPage seemed to be a number of pilot reports that DuPage Tower controllers can be surly and unhelpful.

Aurora Municipal Airport– ARR (ORD 240R/28), with a 6,500-ft runway, is sometimes considered a fringe reliever airport because it is nearly 30 mi from downtown Chicago. But nearby access to Interstate 88 offers a trip only slightly longer to the Loop than from DuPage and certainly convenient to the emerging tech corridor west of Chicago. Like Waukegan and Gary, Aurora is outside Chicago’s Class B, which normally means minimal delays.

The sole full-service FBO is Lumanair, although the airport offers a host of other small businesses. Airport manager Bob Rieser said he’ll entertain bids from FBO competitors when Lumanair pumps more than three million gallons of fuel annually (it is now at two million). Aurora tallied 120,000 operations last year and has 40 turbine-powered aircraft among the 325 based there.