Gary airport wins $57 million in expansion funding

  • Medill News Service
  • January 19, 2006 @ 1:35 AM
Gary/Chicago International Airport officials have spent five years fighting for Federal Aviation Administration money to begin airport expansion they say is crucial to its survival.

On Monday the FAA allocated $57 million in funding, but the airport's battle to establish itself as Chicago's third airport is just beginning. "This expansion plan has been six years in the works. We were quite happy when we heard the news but this is still just one piece of the puzzle," said Deputy Airport Director Chris Curry.

Gary International officials await confirmation of expansion funding from the federal Department of Transportation, which is expected to come in the next month. The airport must increase passenger levels, which have dwindled since one of the airport's carriers, Southeast Airlines, went out of business two years ago.

Curry said the airport in 2004 served 27,000 passengers -- mostly passengers on Hooters Air and Southeast Airlines. In 2005 with only Hooters Air offering passenger service, the airport served 17,000 passengers.

The airport still provides charter services through Allegiant Air and Casino Express Airlines. Hooters Air has temporarily suspended service until March.

Curry said discussion with large carriers has continued for the past few years, but the runway length limitations have always been a deterrent.

The airport will use the FAA money to expand Runway 1230 an additional 1,900 feet from the current 7,000 feet. Curry said construction is slated to begin at the end of this year and will be completed "sometime in 2008." For Curry, this is all part of the plan airport officials have for a resurrection of international proportions. The goal? To finally solidify its reputation as Chicago's third option.

"Whether we end up being Chicago's third airport or Northwest Indiana's first, we want to definitely be the third option for passenger traffic," Curry said. To do this, Curry will continue to court potential carriers, but he declined to name which ones.

"We've been talking to new carriers all along and we will continue to do that. We were doing it prior to the allocation of the money," Curry said.

JetBlue Airways, the New York-based carrier, said it might consider Gary sometime in the future, according to Adam Green, route planning manager.

Currently JetBlue does not serve Chicago or the Midwest and the airline has been negotiating coveted Chicago gate space at other airports.

"There's not enough gate space to get in [at O'Hare]. I think they will look at Gary as an option," Curry said.

Curry said he sees Gary International as a viable alternative to O'Hare or Midway because each airport targets different markets.

"We target Northwest Indiana and the south suburbs of Chicago. With the other two Chicago airports being at capacity, a third airport is definitely needed," Curry said.

What gives Gary International an advantage, said Curry, is its location.

"We're very close to rail service, to water, and we're 30 minutes from downtown Chicago. People can access the airport by three different modes," he said.

But what about possible competition with Peotone?

"We don't even worry about them. We don't. That airport is at least five years from putting a shovel in the ground. We're already up and running," Curry said.

Chicago Aviation Department Spokeswoman Wendy Abrams agrees Gary is the airport on the radar right now.

"We have always supported the growth of the Gary Airport and have long considered them an important partner in the Chicago airport system," Abrams said. "We believe the Gary airport expansion will provide a greater number of options for Chicago travelers."