Bulldozers move in on Miegs Field after long-running dispute over downtown airport

Aviation groups are furious at Chicago mayor Richard Daley's surprise closure of downtown Meigs Field. In a night raid on 31 March, construction crews carved Xs across the sole runway, closing the lakeside airport and stranding 16 general aviation aircraft. The destruction has raised fears that other threatened airports could be at risk.

Daley, who has been trying since 1996 to close Meigs and turn it into a park, cited unspecified security concerns in justifying his unilateral action. Just days earlier, the Transportation Safety Agency and Federal Aviation Administration had imposed a temporary flight restriction over central Chicago at Daley's urging. The FAA was not informed of Meigs' closure until after the runway was cut.

Aviation groups were quick to condemn the raid. "Mayor Daley obviously saw an opportunity, using the ruse of security and the cover of night, to pursue his long-standing goal of closing Meigs Field," says Ed Bolen, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association president Phil Boyer accuses Daley of "playing dictator" and breaking his promise to keep Meigs open.

The pledge to keep the downtown airport open until at least 2006, and possibly to 2026, was enshrined in a 2001 agreement with the governor of Illinois, under which Daley secured state support for expansion of Chicago O'Hare in return for accepting the project to build a new airport at Peotone. But federal legislation required to seal the deal was defeated in Congress, and Daley says he is no longer bound by the agreement.

The Meigs closure was not illegal because, while most public-use airports in the USA are required to stay open in return for receiving government grants, Chicago has repaid federal funds used to improve the airport. But the precedent concerns aviation groups. "Now, any community with the merest whim to close their local airport can do so and point to Chicago as their justification," says National Air Transportation Association president Jim Coyne.

Coyne has called for "swift and strong condemnation" of Daley's actions "by the FAA and others within the federal government". FAA administrator Marion Blakey says the FAA is "concerned" about the closure of Meigs Field as it will increase pressure on Chicago O'Hare and Midway airports.

Source: Flight International