Airport Agony: Other options - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Airport Agony: Other options

This article examines the viability of Milwaukee or Rockford airports as quick fixes to the third airport dilemma.

The Greater Rockford Airport long has been mentioned as a potential ''third airport'' for Chicago.

About 15 years ago, Rockford's airfield was studied — and rejected — as the state searched for another aviation hub. The state eventually settled on land near Peotone.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee's busy Mitchell Airport has marketed itself as ''Chicago's Third Airport'' for 10 years — and is so zealous about protecting the name that it asked Illinois officials to stop using it for Peotone.

As local and national leaders look to solve the Chicago area's airport problems, Rockford and Milwaukee are gaining notice as quick-fixes. These airports have active plans to expand and could siphon flights from O'Hare International Airport immediately.

But Mitchell is in Wisconsin. And Rockford, Illinois' second-largest city, already finds itself sitting in the shadow of O'Hare with no commercial air service.

Since the beginning of the year, Rockford officials have stepped up lobbying efforts to become a ''reliever'' airport. They have been joined by northwest Indiana officials, who want the Gary/Chicago Airport to serve as a reliever.

Milwaukee officials have played a less active role. That's because Mitchell is a thriving airport that already views itself as a reliever, according to a spokeswoman for the airport.

Mitchell has 12 airlines, is the home of and major hub for Midwest Express Airlines and serves 6 million passengers a year. Airport spokeswoman Pat Rowe said an estimated 10 percent of their travelers come from or go to northern Illinois.

Rowe said Milwaukee wants to be included in a regional dialogue but is not using any ''heavy-handed political tactics.'' Mitchell is already designated as an official reliever airport for the region and has already made plans for the future.

''We set ourselves at the ready,'' she said, with 3,000 new parking places under construction, eight new gates on the way and Federal Aviation Administration approval already wrapped up for a new runway when needed.

''So we have done what we need to do for the growth that is steadily occurring,'' she said.

MarySue Barrett, the president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, advocates regional aviation planning. Still, achieving that will be an uphill battle.

''How do we make it safe for Illinois politicians to cut Gary and Milwaukee airports into the solution? ... The first piece is to nip in the bud the calculation that you are going to pay a political price by cooperating across state lines," she said.


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