Mayor’s midnight raid ignites Meigs firestorm

 - October 15, 2007, 11:33 AM

It has been more than a month since Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s midnight raid on the city’s lakefront airport, Meigs Field. By now, the story of the runway’s actual destruction is widely known. Reactions have been pouring in from groups as diverse as NBAA, the Experimental Aircraft Association and the National Air Traffic Controllers’ Association. NATCA wrote that the airport handled 2,273 IFR operations last September and an average of 1,500 IFR ops per month since. Ray Gibbons, president of the local NATCA chapter, said, “Those 1,500 operations are going to have to go somewhere else.”

Signature Flight Support, which has already seen its highest-volume base–at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport–closed for national security reasons, took another hit with the wrecking of Meigs’ runway. Its base at Meigs is closed and 18 employees have been dispersed to other Signature locations. Daley has since recanted his statement that destroying the airport was a security move, virtually admitting bold-facedly that he destroyed the airport because he wanted to, and because it was arguably legal to do so. Trying to move on after the stunned reaction of a community besieged in the middle of the night, general aviation interests now face the enduring question, “Where do we go from here?”

The first step was taken within days of the backhoes’ overnight foray of March 30 to 31. On April 4, The Friends of Meigs Field filed for and received a temporary restraining order from the Cook County Circuit Court disallowing any further destruction of the airport. On the same day, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, after huddling with a phalanx of lawyers, filed suit in federal court with the same objective. Daley’s office has since requested that the Friends of Meigs suit be dismissed, but was rebuffed on April 11. The back-and-forth continues. The AOPA suit is pending. It states, in part, that the mayor and the city “engaged in their covert late-night destruction of the runway to circumvent any public scrutiny, resistance or debate.”

Among the most puzzling questions raised by the Meigs debacle is that of last year’s supposed “deal” between Mayor Daley and then-governor George Ryan. The Chicago Tribune placed the mayor’s action in the context of the squabble over expansion of O’Hare. In an op-ed piece, the paper wrote about the Daley-Ryan agreement calling for nearly doubling O’Hare’s capacity and building a third airline airport south of Chicago in Peotone, Ill. As part of the agreement, Meigs was to be preserved at least until 2006–and possibly until 2026 unless the city council voted to close it. Most in the aviation community believed the deal had saved the day for Meigs.

But the expansion deal has unraveled, and now Daley says that since it was never made law, the Meigs agreement never really existed. Lester Crown, chairman of the city’s task force on aviation, and R. Eden Martin, president of the civic committee, disagree. In a letter published in the Chicago Tribune, they wrote, “There clearly was an agreement between Daley and Ryan on the key points, including preservation of Meigs. [They] also agreed– with the support of the business community–to seek a federal law ensuring that the Daley-Ryan agreement could not be reversed by a future governor or legislature. The aviation pact, however, did not include a proviso that if Congress failed to enact such a law, either party could abandon the agreement. Whether or not the Chicago-Illinois agreement to ensure Chicago’s aviation future is a binding contract, enforceable in court, is not the point. The mayor and the governor entered into this agreement on the entire package, including Meigs, because they believed it was essential to protect the region’s aviation future. They were right–and that’s what makes the mayor’s decision now all the more disappointing.”

On April 10 Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill), who supports Daley’s closure of the airport, released a paper titled Meigs Field Talking Points, which included, among others, the following arguments:

• In late 1996 and early 1997, litigation over the fate of Meigs Field resulted in a court-ordered “consent decree.” This decree required the city to keep Meigs open until Feb. 10, 2002. After such time, the mayor was free to close Meigs.

• The consent decree had expired, and the mayor has had the legal authority to close Meigs since then.

• Since the airport reopened in 1997, it has seen a 38.58-percent decrease in operations, from 52,053 in 1997 to 31,972 last year.

• Aircraft operations activity at Meigs has decreased so dramatically since the airport reopened that the FAA advised the city that the agency was terminating its contract tower program.

• Meigs is an outdated airport because the runway length is less than 4,000 feet (3,899 feet), with no corporate aircraft hangars.

•    Single-engine aircraft primarily use Meigs.

•    There are 12 other GA facilities within 66 miles of Chicago.

• Meigs Field operates at a net loss of $3,901,695 per year–$587,452 revenue in 2002 compared to expenses of $4,489,147. All told, Meigs has lost $22.5 million since it reopened in 1997.

As for his early argument that Daley destroyed the airport for security reasons, the Chicago Tribune editor and numerous letter writers pointed out that, even if a serious threat from Meigs were identified, the facility could have been simply locked down for the duration of the threat, rather than destroyed. Daley’s case for destroying the airport for security reasons further unraveled when Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said publicly that the mayor had not consulted his office before sending in the demolition team. This is particularly relevant because the national security justification was cited as the mayor’s reason for waiving the federal law requiring that the FAA have 30 days’ notice of closure.

That didn’t stop the Boston Globe from publishing an op-ed piece supporting Daley. Titled, “Terror from small planes,” the April 18 editorial called for further curtailment of general aviation in the name of security. It said, in part: “The shooting in Iraq is coming to an end, but the threat of terrorism will not. The Department of Homeland Security and the TSA should take a page from Mayor Daley…”

The battle has now moved into the courts and halls of Congress. The House aviation subcommittee held hearings on April 9, during which AOPA president Phil Boyer, NBAA president Jack Olcott and NATA president James Coyne lent their voices to the groundswell of opposition to Mayor Daley. At the hearing, several legislators also condemned the mayor’s actions, including chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.). Rep. Lipinski, whose district includes Chicago, insisted that Daley was within his rights to close the airport.