Lawmakers can still sink Meigs/O’Hare airport pact

 - May 27, 2008, 9:27 AM

A fragile and intricate set of deals last month promise to keep Meigs Field (CGX) open until 2026, but the Illinois General Assembly could still reverse the terms with a simple majority vote anytime after Jan. 1, 2006. As part of the same round, Meigs supporter Illinois Gov. George Ryan and opponent Chicago Mayor Richard Daley framed a $6.6 billion plan to expand Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD) by four runways and to fast-track a new regional airport at Peotone, Ill., a site and expense that some have already called a “white elephant.”

The deal coalesced when United Airlines of Elk Grove Township, Ill., and Dallas-based American Airlines agreed to fund the Meigs budget deficit, the level of which is disputed by the factions as between $150,000 and $4 million. Steve Whitney, president of both the Friends of Meigs Field and the Meigs Action Coalition, priced the subsidy at 20 cents per flight at Midway and O’Hare or less than 25 cents per passenger for the two airlines, saying it would relieve the Illinois general revenue fund from picking up the Meigs tab.

The major airlines acted not out of love for general aviation but as a gesture to Daley and Ryan to cool their political hot potato–Meigs. The majors expected a prize for the diversion: immediate expansion of capacity at their O’Hare hub and construction of a new south runway after 2011. In turn, Governor Ryan gladly shifted his political burden to Congress: “We are going to pass this off to those guys in Washington and say, ‘We have done our job, do yours.’”

The executive committee representing the 6,000-strong Friends of Meigs Field had met twice monthly for the five years since the last agreement on the Chicago waterfront airport. Yet hopes faded as Meigs was set to close on February 10 this year, displaced by Daley’s vision of a bird habitat and wetland. Meigs advocates had rallied for a reprieve or at least an extension, arguing its merit as an economic engine and a magnet to conventioneers, a vital reliever to O’Hare and Midway and a symbolic last line in the sand to save all endangered general aviation airports.

Since September 11, the same advocates packaged Meigs as an emergency airfield, a buffer and staging point against terrorism and as the red-white-and-blue beacon lighting America’s freedom to fly. Recent campaigns included 10,000 postcards to Daley and an open letter signed by 25 of the alphabet groups, bolstered by an AOPA television presence, intense lobbying and a “Great Fly-in” on November 17, which in the past drew thousands but this time hosted only 40.

Meigs supporters have now claimed victory, though their hometown field was a pawn in the larger negotiation. United Airlines issued its own statement applauding the tentative agreement for its positive effect on O’Hare and the regional economy, without any mention of Meigs Field.

If the plan is implemented in full, nearly 500 homes surrounding Bensenville, Ill., will be purchased with federal funds and demolished to allow for the new O’Hare runway, and another $450 million will be spent to soundproof nearby homes and schools. In exchange for the federal cash cow, Ryan dropped his objections to O’Hare expansion and his stance on limiting slots. The new parallel runways, which will not be complete for nearly 20 years, would expand capacity to 1.6 million flights yearly, almost doubling last year’s level of 908,000.

On December 3, Ryan asked House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to pass a legislative package to put the proposed Peotone Airport on a faster track within the FAA, along with a rubberstamp to the O’Hare and Meigs plan through federal spending. Ryan called the proposal “99 percent of what we had negotiated with Chicago. I can’t see any reason for it to be derailed.” By December 7, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)–an AOPA member–announced their bill to cement the deal.

AOPA president Phil Boyer joined the senators at the podium announcing the bill, and later Ed Bolen of GAMA said his organization would lobby for swift passage. Status of the bill was unresolved at press time as opponents, including Bensenville deputy village manager James Johnson, shifted their fight to Washington, calling the deal “an end run around the approval process.”

In response, Boyer of AOPA justified Meigs’ value to Chicago but mainly defended the role of relievers nationally, saying that there are five general aviation flights for every commercial flight. Other advocates deflected attention from specific numbers on Meigs to focus instead on its symbolic and patriotic value.

NBAA president Jack Olcott, though, said the deal acknowledged the economic benefits of Meigs for thousands of business aviation operations. “This also creates an opportunity for NBAA to consider the city of Chicago as a possible venue for its annual convention,” said Olcott.

On November 20, the Radiological Society of North America had disagreed, nearly pulling its convention over fears that McCormick Place was prone to terrorist attack staged from Meigs or indirect fallout from an attack on Meigs. However, the convention proceeded as planned.

Along with all U.S. and Canadian civil airports, Meigs closed on September 11, 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.

Terms of last month’s agreement require Ryan and Daley to support studies and seek FAA and environmental approvals for a new airport at Peotone. Hastert was approached for his support not only for his position as speaker, but because his congressional district adjoins the proposed expansion area for O’Hare, and federal money would mean a constituent boondoggle.

Federal investment might include several hundred million dollars for new road access from the west. If the terms are passed as part of a defense appropriations bill, future Illinois governors or Chicago mayors could not derail the compromise.

Since September 11, IFR operations at Meigs have returned to about 100 daily, from their former 200 daily or 38,000 annually. But that peak usage had already been in decline for some 20 years. In 1993 and 1996 studies, worst-case estimates called for 63 percent of Meigs traffic or about 21,000 yearly operations to relocate to Midway if it closed, and only 1,300 operations to O’Hare. United Express is the only Meigs carrier, with four daily flights to Springfield, Ill.