Could Meigs happen elsewhere?

March 31, 2003

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City of Chicago suddenly tears up the Meigs
Field runway, stranding some 16 aircraft.
AOPA photos by Mark Schaible.
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As pilots around the world react with shock and anger to the destruction of Chicago's Meigs Field airport, many are asking the questions, "How could this happen?" and "Could it happen to my airport?"

"Mayor Daley tore up Meigs because he could," said AOPA Chief Legal Counsel John Yodice. "He could do it because of legal circumstances that apply only to Meigs and, of course, special political considerations unique to Chicago. Those conditions don't apply to other airports." Daley has never made it a secret that he wanted to close the airport and replace it with a "park."

Yodice explained that most public-use airports in the United States are protected by "grant obligations," contracts that obligate the airport to stay open in exchange for receiving federal money. Others are covered by surplus property agreements where the federal government gives land in exchange for a commitment to maintain an airport. There was a grant obligation for Meigs as well, but those special Chicago political considerations made it different than any other.

It's convoluted, but here's how it worked. The city of Chicago's aviation department doesn't "own" the land underneath Meigs; it's owned by the Chicago Parks District, which leases the land to the city for use as an airport.

In 1989, the FAA wrote a grant agreement especially for Chicago, stating that the grant would only apply as long as the city had a valid lease on the land. If the lease expired, the city no longer had an obligation to maintain the airport, and it could pay back its unexpired grant obligations. "I'm not aware of an agreement quite like that anywhere else in the country," said Yodice.

To no great surprise, the parks district refused to renew the lease in 1996, and Daley closed Meigs. Because of the "escape clause" within the grant agreement, the federal government didn't have anything to force the city to keep the airport open.

So that left court action and political deals to reopen the airport. In 1996, AOPA and other groups sued to keep Meigs open. AOPA also worked to get legislation that would allow the state to take over the airport from the city. While the lawsuit failed, there was strong support in the Illinois legislature for the takeover bill. Faced with the threat of losing control over the airport, Daley struck a deal with then-Governor Jim Edgar (a Republican) to keep Meigs open until February 2002. The takeover bill was quietly killed.

Fast forward to 2001, when Mayor Daley wanted to expand Chicago O'Hare Airport and the state wanted a third commercial airport for the Chicago area at Peotone. To get the political support he needed at the state and federal levels, Daley again reached an agreement with GOP Governor George Ryan. In exchange for state support for the O'Hare expansion, Daley accepted the Peotone project, and he promised to keep Meigs open until 2026.

The mayor also needed federal legislation to make the projects happen the way he wanted them to go, so Senator Richard Durbin and Representative William Lipinski of Illinois introduced bills that would have set the Daley-Ryan agreement in concrete and prevented a future Illinois governor or Chicago mayor from backing out of the deal.

AOPA's Washington Legislative Affairs office worked tirelessly to help move that legislation through Congress. "We knew we had to get the deal to save Meigs written into law," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "We couldn't trust that a hand-shake agreement with Mayor Daley would last forever."

However, the bill failed in the Senate last year, in part because of a filibuster by Illinois' other senator. Both Durbin and Lipinski reintroduced the legislation this year, but Daley says he's no longer bound by his promise.

Governor Ryan is no longer in office. He was beaten in the last election by Rod Blagojevich, who like Daley, is a Democrat. Daley was Blagojevich's campaign chairman.

"Every year for the past five years, we have worked with Congress to 'stiffen' the FAA's spine on airport grant enforcement," said Boyer. "The federal government gives grants to airports because they are part of a national transportation system that must be maintained. Airport sponsors can't just give the money back if they don't want an airport anymore.

"Meigs was a great loss. But with the changes AOPA has helped implement, a closure like Meigs is not likely to happen again."

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