Vertiport Chicago (43IL) is poised for an eVTOL future. So says Daniel Mojica, the 10-acre facility’s executive director. “Almost all organizations entering the eVTOL space have visited us. They realize that there is so much to consider when building and designing infrastructure,” said Mojica, who added that Vertiport Chicago was designed with expansion in mind. “While we would have to make additions to the facility for eVTOL, we certainly have the space.”
Real estate developer Paul Beitler first proposed a Chicago vertiport in 1993. The FAA began funding vertiport studies in 1988. The privately-owned vertiport officially opened for business in 2015. Prior landing permission is required, however.
“Our founders were paradigm shifters when they thought about this space 15 years ago,” Mojica said. “There was always an understanding for an addition to the infrastructure. We are pre-approved to build a second hangar. It would be 25,000 sq ft, roughly the same size as the 30,000-sq-ft hangar we have now. And we can add a second office building to our site. We knew that power could be added in the future and there is certainly enough space to build that.”
The vertiport, which borders Union Pacific’s 100-acre intermodal facility, is located at 1339 S. Wood Street, between Chicago’s downtown South Loop and the near west side, 2.5 miles west of Lake Michigan and adjacent to the Illinois Medical District. “We’re situated nearly a mile and a half from everything, including the United Center, major highways, and the booming West Loop where major corporations such as Google and McDonald’s University are locating. I can see McCormick Place [Chicago’s lakefront convention center] out my office window” he said.
Chicago's vertiport has the capacity to park eight helicopters on the ramp and up to 17 overall. It is open 24/7 and has an 11,700-sq-ft passenger terminal with VIP entrance and a 22,000-gallon fuel farm. Several tenants have their own aircraft maintenance technicians on site. Current regular clients include Helicopters Inc., Elite Rotorcraft, Breeze Helicopters, and the helicopter programs associated with the adjacent hospitals which include Jesse Brown VA, Rush Chicago, University of Illinois Chicago, and Stroger Cook County Hospital. Lurie Children’s Hospital also uses the vertiport in bad weather, as opposed to attempting landings on the hospital's elevated helipad.
While all customers are important, Mojica said he was particularly proud of the vertiport’s ability to service helicopter air ambulances and that he occasionally receives letters of appreciation from patients and their families. Mojica said the vertiport is working with at least one medical tenant to explore the development of an instrument approach. Other regular users of the facility include the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and Canadian Air Force.
Helicopters Inc. will soon begin regular per-seat operations for Blade from the vertiport, it was announced earlier this year. Most of that traffic is expected to be service to O’Hare International Airport (ORD), which, while a comparatively short distance, can otherwise be a ground livery ride that can take several hours, depending on the traffic. Charter operators already provide service from the vertiport to O’Hare, landing at the helipad there and then providing a short four-minute car ride to O’Hare Terminal 5.
Other popular charter destinations from the vertiport include customer summer homes in southern Wisconsin and southwest Michigan. Customers even use the vertiport for links to close-by Midway Airport, due to Chicago’s ubiquitous ground snarl. “They will take that four-minute flight, especially if they need to be back in New York or London the same day,” Mojica said.
He noted that the vertiport also regularly arranges VIP transportation to DuPage (KDPA) and Chicago Executive (KPWK) airports and added that the vertiport’s ability to handle regular charter traffic to a variety of destinations would segue well into any future eVTOL operations. Mojica declined to say if any prospective eVTOL customers had approached the vertiport with regard to managing any potential satellite locations. “We’re already landing folks at different locations, resorts, and destinations,” he said. “It is something we are already doing without having an actual eVTOL operator.”
While adding additional acreage to the site is not currently anticipated, Mojica said several adjacent lots could be incorporated, should the need arise, and bringing in additional electrical power via the intermodal lot next door would not be problematic.
Noise isn’t much of an issue, due to the vertiport’s location. “When they built this place they had to run a decibel test and found out that the Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated, passenger trains are actually louder than most helicopters that come in and out of here.” Mojica handles any noise complaints that come in personally. The vertiport has noise-abatement procedures, and in general, unlike facilities in New York and Los Angeles, receives good political support, he said. “Our aldermen have been fantastic” and have encouraged the utilization of the vertiport, he said.
The vertiport is considered critical infrastructure and remained open 24/7 during the pandemic, handling relief supplies and medevac aircraft, even as overall flight activity rapidly plummeted, shifting primarily from air tourism to helicopter air ambulance. “In 2019, we had 10,400 movements, a 21 percent increase over 2018,” Mojica said. “The pandemic came and things shifted a bit, obviously.”
Not only did the pandemic cut regular flight operations, but it fundamentally shifted the customer mix. Before the pandemic, air tourism accounted for 70 percent of all vertiport movements. Now, helicopter air ambulance accounts for 60 percent, with private aircraft and charter accounting for 25 percent, and the remainder split between parapublic and what little air tourism remains.
“The good news is that overall traffic is coming back and we get several air tour requests every day,” Mojica said, adding it is conceivable that total flight operations could be back to 2019 levels by year-end. “I am very confident we will beat the 2020 numbers and it is not impossible to get close to the 2019 numbers once Blade service begins. It’s just a matter of properly educating all the potential users in the area and finding the right partners.”