Kadner: Do airlines want in on South Suburban Airport?
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org January 31, 2014 8:42PM
Susan Shea, director of the Illinois Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division, displays one of the South Suburban Airport's master plan chapters that has been submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval. | Cindy Cain~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 3, 2014 5:36PM
Illinois is attempting to assess the level of airline interest in the South Suburban Airport while also giving the industry a chance to shape the future of the project.
On Friday, the Illinois Department of Transportation issued a “request for information,” a preliminary step before soliciting proposals and bids to construct the airport.
An IDOT spokesman said the agency hopes to use this process to generate ideas that would make the airport more attractive to airlines.
In its request for information, IDOT notes that “your comments and suggestions will be considered as the Department develops a strategy to best deliver the South Suburban Airport. ... The purpose of the RFI is to obtain specific ideas and goals that will help generate a comprehensive and effective strategy to market commercial air passenger and air cargo activity at SSA.”
In July, Gov. Pat Quinn ended more than 30 years of regional political warfare over control of the airport when he signed a bill giving IDOT the authority to build the South Suburban Airport. Quinn has said his goal is to create a public-private partnership to ultimately construct and operate the airport.
In its RFI questionnaire, IDOT asks, “What major components would an effective Airport Marketing Plan include and what types of users would be the target audiences of a Comprehensive Marketing Plan?”
IDOT notes that the success of any such plan may be dependent on how it is implemented and asks respondents to discuss the timing and sequencing of the various components of any marketing plan “to ensure maximum effectiveness.”
Given what it says is the “competitive” and “guarded” nature of the airline industry, IDOT asks for step-by-step suggestions on how to approach commercial airlines, including ideas for key phases and timing of the marketing process. The agency ask for the same sort of advice in targeting the air cargo industry.
IDOT also wants information on what facilities and/or services would be beneficial for passenger and cargo operators, such as foreign trade zone designation, on-site Customs and Border Protection personnel and animal and a plant inspection station.
“SSA is included in the FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems and Illinois State Aviation System,” the questionnaire notes. “How will the development and growth of SSA fit into the Chicago region’s existing airport system? The national airport system?”
In a news release about the request for information, Quinn said the planned airport near Peotone is “one of my top priorities and the faster we can get it built, the faster the people of Will County will reap the many benefits this economic engine will generate.” The airport would be surrounded by Beecher, Crete, Monee and University Park.
IDOT is producing an airport master plan for Federal Aviation Administration review that addresses the construction and operation of the inaugural airport program. Several key elements of that plan — including aviation forecasts, facility requirements and alternatives analysis — have been accepted by the FAA.
Illinois has acquired more than 3,000 acres in the initial airport footprint, which eventually would cover 5,800 acres. The state estimates that the South Suburban Airport would create 11,400 construction jobs and, once open, many jobs in “airport and airline operations, cargo, security, concessions, trucking, logistics, restaurants, hotels, rental car businesses and retail establishments.
For years, critics of the South Suburban Airport have said it would become a white elephant because no airline had indicated an interest in locating there.
In fact, Southwest Airlines executives had threatened to pull out of Midway Airport if faced with new competition, and United and American airlines, which dominate O’Hare International Airport, have actively campaigned against a third major airport.
But as a young reporter, I covered Midway Airport when it was abandoned by all the major airlines, which claimed its runways were too short and that Midway no longer met their needs. The airport deteriorated to the point that rubber garbage cans had to be placed in the passenger terminals to collect rainwater leaking through the roof.
Mayor Richard J. Daley literally could be heard screaming at airline officials in his office after they refused his overtures to return to Midway.
Jack Bowen, Chicago’s deputy aviation commissioner, believed in the revitalization of the airport so deeply that he left city government and helped launch Midway Airlines with four other investors in 1978.
The airline survived until 1991, when it declared bankruptcy, but it proved there was enough consumer demand to justify passenger service. Southwest Airlines eventually capitalized on the opportunity.
So just because the airlines say something won’t work, doesn’t mean it can’t. They’re often looking to keep competition out of the market.
But the South Suburban Airport would be unique. No private company is running a major airport in this country, although it has become fairly common in Europe.
As a result, there are few companies with a history in the business. Unless they, the airline industry and the state can agree on key components of the South Suburban Airport, the project could be doomed.
Reaching out to the airlines and other aviation experts to get their input before the airport plans are finalized is a prudent move. Some would say it should have been done sooner.
But until the airport had a government entity such as IDOT in control of its fate, it was just a pipe dream.
Quinn has put his reputation on the line to make it happen. How it pans out will be crucial to his legacy as governor.