Commentary - Meigs: The Bigger Picture

 - October 15, 2007, 11:36 AM

The destruction of Meigs Field’s runway is viewed by enraged aviation interests as an act of vandalism to a public facility that would have landed any other citizen of Chicago in jail. Such is the power of politics in the Second City, however, that Mayor Richard Daley Jr. continues to walk free, plotting with his lawyers.

What Daley was unable to accomplish through democratic channels he wrought by ordering in backhoes under the cover of a Sunday night and under the pretense of “security” (see story on page 1). The security angle smelled of rotting Great Lakes whitefish from the start, and it wasn’t long before Daley’s flimsy cover was blown by the revelation that he had never consulted with homeland security chief Tom Ridge about any threat Meigs might or might not pose to the voters of Chicago.

Daley’s destruction of Meigs had nothing to do with security and everything to do with his original campaign of putting a park in its stead, and he admitted as much within days of the field’s demise. Some observers have speculated that a park will serve as nothing more than an appetizer for more lucrative land use such as a waterfront casino. Just nine days before the backhoes went to work, Daley said during a recorded media interview that he would not use homeland security as a tool for closing the airport.

The sense of outrage in aviation circles was immediate and loud, led by the 400,000-member AOPA and the Friends of Meigs, both of which filed for restraining orders (in federal and county courts, respectively) against any further destruction by Daley’s goons. NBAA also became involved. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association cited the potential for overloading Chicago’s other airports with Meigs out of action. The leaders of AOPA, NBAA and the National Air Transportation Association all stood up for the cause at House aviation subcommittee hearings on April 9.

But Daley caught most of us in aviation napping. We thought the field was secure, following what appeared to be a hard-won agreement between Daley and former Illinois Governor George Ryan last year after a protracted fight. Meigs would remain open until at least 2006, we were content to believe, and possibly until 2026. But the agreement was not supported by law, and it hinged on major expansion at O’Hare and the construction of a new airport in Peotone, Ill.–neither of which has come to pass.

Aviation interests were quick to see the danger in the bigger picture painted by the demolition of Meigs, which could set a precedent for other communities to apply their own brand of frontier justice to the popular issues of airport noise, safety and air pollution. Sure enough, Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.), long opposed to business aviation stronghold Teterboro Airport, soon leaped on the opportunity opened by Meigs and proposed that if Washington could have a general aviation no-fly zone then so should New York, site of the worst terrorist attack in history. GA traffic would be restricted within 15 nm of New York City, greatly complicating the utility of TEB. Rothman later backtracked, claiming his idea was nothing more than a new tactic in his ongoing campaign to keep scheduled traffic out of TEB. The Boston Globe ran an editorial, under the headline “Terror from small planes,” supporting Daley’s strike.

The dismissive way with which Daley gouged Meigs into submission raises the wider issue of how the populace perceives non-airline aviation. Airplane operators have lost another airport, this time to an elected property developer; to the man or woman in the street this is seen as being of little or no consequence. The general public has largely disliked “private” aviation for years, but with the images of Boeings slicing into skyscrapers seared into the collective consciousness on September 11, the general public now actively fears aviation–particularly the segment of aviation that it perceives as being less regulated than the sort on which it can buy tickets. Politicians have been quick to hitch their agendas to this sense of unease because doing so shows voters they’re tuned in and willing to change things.

As a prerequisite to boarding an airliner, anyone with a need to travel by air can convince himself that the airlines are now pretty well insulated from terrorism. But that same person is less willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a form of air travel that seems like a free-for-all. Business aviation might be gaining ground with corporations, but to those who now struggle to pluck up the courage to board a Boeing it still looks too much like an elitist conveyance that, with lax oversight, could easily be a guided missile.

Unfortunately for its supporters, Meigs’ 3,900-foot runway did not appeal to business aviation operators flying anything heftier than a light jet, thus removing some influential voices from the front lines of the campaign to save the field. Meigs was more for the light turbine and AOPA set, and even then it could not be classified as a heavily used field–since it reopened in 1997, operations had fallen by almost 40 percent, from 52,071 in 1997 to 32,050 last year, according to FAA statistics.

But the significance of the precedent established by Daley’s pillage has not been lost on any of the alphabets, regardless of whom they represent. Meigs, opened in 1948, was the absolute finest in downtown air access, moored like an aircraft carrier alongside the jagged, commercial skyline of the Midwest’s premier city. And yet it fell victim to a politician’s ambitions in the few hours between sunset and dawn one Sunday night. Daley was smart enough to reimburse the federal government the money it had paid to keep Meigs an airport, thereby rendering the FAA powerless to save the field. That is a glaring weakness in the infrastructure, and it needs to change. The FAA has to be empowered to play its part in preserving the facilities on which all aviation depends, and its leaders have to be willing and eager to join the fray.