Meigs Field suffers significant legal and legislative setbacks

February 6, 2003

It was not a good weekend for the embattled and scarred airport on the shores of Lake Michigan. Late Friday afternoon, an Illinois appeals court lifted an emergency temporary restraining order that had prevented the city of Chicago from doing more damage to Meigs Field airport. In the state legislature, meanwhile, Mayor Daley's partisans kept Meigs-saving legislation bottled up in committee. That legislation would have forced the city to reopen the airport, but the full legislature never got the chance to vote on it. And it became very clear that AOPA's federal lawsuit would not succeed in reopening the airport.

"These were bitter and significant losses, but we're still continuing the fight," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "We knew going in that the chances of success in court were not great because of the unique federal agreements on this airport. And the FAA's reluctance to take a strong stand through the years also damaged our rescue efforts.

"Nevertheless, we will continue our efforts toward finding any legal or legislative actions that will stand a reasonable chance of saving Meigs Field airport."

The major blows against Meigs started Friday afternoon with the surprise ruling from the Illinois Appellate Court on the Friends of Meigs lawsuit. One week ago that court had granted an emergency TRO that would have protected the airport until June 4. But the court reversed itself early. Now nothing is preventing the city from continuing destruction of the airport, although the city has said it likely won't do anything for months.

Also on Friday, AOPA made the strategic decision to withdraw its lawsuit in federal court because it had become clear that no matter what the court ultimately decided, it would not force the city to reopen the airport. According to AOPA's attorneys, Federal Judge James Moran has indicated he will grant the city of Chicago's motion to dismiss the case.

"Based on the judge's gloomy outlook, it had become clear that pursuing the federal case would only result in running up legal fees," said Boyer. "If we withdraw from the litigation at this point, we should be able to avoid having to pay any of the city's costs in the litigation. AOPA is always cognizant in legal actions on deploying member dollars in a prudent manner, keeping in mind the odds of winning such actions."

However, other AOPA actions against the city are still proceeding. The AOPA complaint to the FAA about the city's violation of FAA regulations is still working its way through the agency, as is a similar complaint with the state of Illinois.

"The city of Chicago will likely feel more pain for destroying Meigs," said Boyer. "And we are still winning the public-relations battle. We have raised the importance of general aviation airports in the minds of the public and public leaders. We have achieved successes that will help to protect other airports from Daley-like destruction."

On the public-relations front, the Chicago media continues spanking Daley. In a story bannered across the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times Monday morning, actor and AOPA member Harrison Ford rips into the mayor.

Under the headline "Ford rips into Mayor Daley over Meigs Field 'murder,'" Sun-Times columnist Bill Zwecker quotes Ford saying, "How does it feel to live in a city where the mayor tears up an airport.... I was furious. I don't think I've been as angry about anything in a long time.... It infuriates me—especially the way it was done...."

To protect other airports, AOPA capitalized on the outrage in Congress over the destruction of Meigs to lobby for the "Meigs Legacy Amendment." That amendment (which is part of the FAA reauthorization bill now moving through the House) would require a 30-day advance notice to the FAA before closing an airport, and that notice would have to be published in the Federal Register. Any agency that doesn't comply with that law could be fined $10,000 for each day that an airport remains closed without having given the required notice.

"Keep in mind the larger picture," said Boyer. "We have sent an unequivocal message to politicians everywhere that airports are worth fighting for, and we will fight for them. And we have gained some new tools to help protect our community airports."

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