Fickle politics determine Meig's fate

 - May 22, 2008, 6:13 AM

Despite a new blizzard of support for Meigs Field (CGX) using every media, general aviation’s most famous single-runway airport is set to close permanently on February 10 in favor of a bird habitat. The “Great Chicago Meigs Airlift” on Saturday, November 17 attracted only 40 supporters as fly-in conditions were near zero-zero–what Meigs Action Coalition executive director Rachel Goodstein called “worse than pea soup.” In an ironic turn, most attendees flew to suburban Palwaukee and then drove to Meigs.

The fly-in followed a letter of support from 25 aviation and business groups published in the Chicago Sun-Times on November 9, and the delivery of 10,000 pro-Meigs postcards to Chicago Mayor Daley on November 8 by the Meigs Action Coalition. Both the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune suggested a recent softening of support for Meigs by Illinois Gov. George Ryan, with Ryan reportedly calling for a three-year stay for Meigs, rather than his previous stance of permanent support, to negotiate an expansion of O’Hare.

Meigs was closed on September 11 along with all U.S. and Canadian civil airports, but while most airports reopened within days, Meigs remained closed until October 11. The airport has since been hobbled by temporary flight restrictions (TFR), requested not by the FAA but by the City of Chicago.

Meigs supporters were preparing to respond to a request by the Radiological Society of North America to close the airport during its conference on November 25 to 30 at nearby McCormick Place. AOPA countered on behalf of Meigs that only a dozen calls of concern had been placed by RSNA members, from among 65,000 expected attendees, and at press time Goodstein predicted that Meigs would remain open during the conference.

A Patriotic Emblem

Since September 11, arguments for Meigs have shifted markedly from that of an economic engine and a reliever for Midway and O’Hare to that of a patriotic emblem.

IFR operations at the downtown Chicago airport have returned to about 100 daily, from their former 200 per day or 38,000 annually. Meigs Field’s Class D airspace had been in effect from 0600 to 2200, with Class G at other times. City of Chicago officials requested a five-nautical-mile radius “no-fly” zone over downtown and the Sears Tower, which since September 11 is now the tallest U.S. office building.

The Friends of Meigs Field, a support group for the airport, argued that by forcing flights out over Lake Michigan, the zone would eliminate options for an emergency glide to the field. On October 31 a smaller TFR was granted by the FAA.

Goodstein of the Meigs Action Coalition, which claims 500,000 supporters via the alphabet groups, and Steve Whitney, president of Friends of Meigs Field, maintain that the TFR will do little to counter terrorism but will calm public fears, or at least divert attention so that the fight can go on. Meigs advocates coordinated mail and petitions at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., in July, and a substantial drive took place on October 26. New drives are expected this month.

AOPA president Phil Boyer appeared on “Chicago Tonight” on October 22 with representatives of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a Meigs opponent, and Illinois Gov. Ryan, a Meigs supporter. “AOPA is charging ahead on a variety of fronts to keep Meigs open,” said Boyer. AOPA has been running a pro-Meigs television commercial on Illinois stations since May 20.

Besides being covered in a TFR, Meigs is now symbolically wrapped in the U.S. flag. “Many people do not realize that military cargo airplanes like the C-130 and the C-17 can land at Meigs fully loaded,” said Goodstein. “When our nation is at war, we should not destroy any part of our national aviation system.” On November 12, Whitney’s Meigs Action Coalition presented reports suggesting the field’s role as a buffer against attack and a staging point for terrorist response.

A ‘Long-term Solution’

The post-attack efforts bolster drier economic testimony by NBAA’s Pete West before Illinois Gov. Ryan in late August. “Meigs Field presents Illinois and the City of Chicago with the best possible long-term, low-cost solution to maintaining and even increasing capacity within the current aviation system,” said West. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey voiced support for Meigs but shrugged off the struggle as a local issue, with no federal leverage. Debate included a review of Peotone, Ill., a possible new field to serve traffic pulled from Meigs.

A 1996 user study promoted by Meigs found that half of Meigs users originated from outside Illinois, and a 1993 study listed 80 percent of traffic for conventions or Chicago waterfront business. Officials predict that if Meigs closes as scheduled, 21,000 operations–63 percent of Meigs general aviation traffic–will relocate to Midway, and 1,300 GA operations will migrate to O’Hare. United Express is the only airline serving Meigs, with four daily flights to Springfield, Ill. Meigs has 100 tie-downs and four public helipads.

Meigs reaches the local public directly through its annual open house, which typically attracts 4,000. A week before the sixth annual program, scheduled for September 30, Friends of Meigs Field had to postpone this year’s program of fly-bys and aircraft displays. Meigs rescheduled and packaged the event for November 17 as a fly-in.

Meigs user John Miller told AIN that his company prefers Meigs for its proximity to the convention center. Miller said the 3,899-ft runway, criticized as too short for serious business aviation traffic, is ideal for his company’s King Air B200, Citation and Learjet 31. But like many, Miller sees the debate more as personalities and local politics.