A proud history

March 30, 2004

A proud history
The AOPA battle to save Meigs Field

Mar. 30, 2004 - Since 1994, AOPA has committed a significant amount of money and association resources on the effort to save Chicago's Meigs Field Airport. "It was a bitter battle to lose, but when you review what AOPA has done over the past decade to save Meigs, I'm proud to say that we left no stone unturned," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "With the help and support of our members, we fought one hell of a fight."

Through the years, AOPA has never been hesitant to commit the association's resources in battle for Meigs when there was the slightest chance for success, Boyer said. Many others have partnered in the fight as well, but none have individually contributed as much as AOPA.

AOPA's battle to save Meigs began in 1994 when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced plans to convert Meigs Field to a park. He could do that because of a unique FAA grant agreement that gave him an "escape clause." That FAA grant had special language that allowed Daley to close Meigs in 1996 when the lease between the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District for the airport land expired.

As soon as Daley's plans became clear, AOPA began a multifaceted campaign to try to save the airport. The association wrote a series of letters to Daley and Chicago politicians, emphasizing the importance of the airport not only to the city, but the national transportation system.

AOPA also started its public-relations efforts as well. In June 1996, it took out its first full-page newspaper ad designed to rally public opinion against Daley's plan. The ad, directed to residents near Midway Airport, was headlined "Daley Wants to Close Meigs Field and Send the Traffic to You" and urged residents to contact Daley and other key Illinois politicians.

The association also went to the federal watchdog agency - the General Accounting Office - and presented investigators with the evidence demonstrating the national need to keep the airport open.

Continuing its PR campaign, AOPA took the issue of Meigs Field directly to the nation's top political figures gathered in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention in August 1996. AOPA flew a 100-foot-long aerial banner over Chicago, protesting the impending closure of Meigs. During convention week, AOPA also distributed hundreds of campaign buttons. Banner and buttons bore the message " DECISION 96? KEEP MEIGS AIRPORT OPEN!"

The association was also working with the State of Illinois. On September 5, 1996, the Illinois Department of Transportation threatened to take over the airport if the city closed it. Nevertheless, the Chicago City Council (a rubber stamp for Mayor Daley) voted to close Meigs Field September 12.

AOPA and six other plaintiffs immediately filed suit in federal court and asked for a temporary restraining order to stop the city, while the State of Illinois sued Chicago in state court.

Meanwhile, AOPA worked with 11 key members of Congress who wrote then-FAA Administrator David Hinson, asking him to reverse FAA's decision allowing Chicago to close Meigs.

On September 27, a federal judge turned down AOPA's request for a TRO. On the 30th, the lease expired, and the city closed the airport.

But AOPA wasn't about to give up. The association lobbied the Illinois legislature for a law allowing the state to take over and operate Meigs Field. The " Meigs Act" passed in December.

Facing the threat from both the legislature and the pending lawsuit in state court, Daley compromised. Daley and Illinois Governor Jim Edgar entered into an agreement that would keep Meigs Field open for five years until February 2003. Chicago agreed to operate and promote the use of Meigs; the state agreed to withdraw its lawsuit and repeal the Meigs Act. After five years, Chicago could do as it pleased with the airport, and the state wouldn't interfere. But Meigs supporters believed that in that five years they could demonstrate the importance of the airport. And thanks to the efforts of AOPA and others, Meigs would stay open an additional five years.

On February 11, 1997, Meigs reopened, and AOPA President Phil Boyer was among the first to land there.

But as the end of the five-year agreement approached, Daley again made it clear that he had every intention of closing the airport to build a park. Once again, AOPA pursued multiple avenues of attack to save Meigs Field.

The association did considerable research on a unique "buy-out" proposal that not only would save the airport, but would also put money into Chicago parks. AOPA President Boyer tried to quietly present the proposal to Daley, but the imperious mayor would never schedule a meeting. (More on this below.)

AOPA turned once again to the Illinois legislature, even airing television commercials in May 2001 to convince lawmakers to step in and keep the airport open. And the association continued its efforts with Congress, telling congressional committees about the important role reliever airports like Meigs play. AOPA's efforts led to an amendment encouraging the preservation of Meigs as part of the plan to enhance Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

The association was part of the O'Hare Delay Task Force and used that platform to show how Meigs Field was part of a regional solution to congestion at O'Hare.

Then, the breakthrough: In December 2001, Illinois Governor George Ryan and Daley reached a deal that would keep Meigs Field open for 25 years as part of a much larger agreement involving the expansion of O'Hare and the construction of a new air carrier airport. Members of the Illinois congressional delegation introduced legislation to lock the deal into federal law, and AOPA began lobbying other members of Congress to get the law passed. AOPA even worked with Daley and testified multiple times before Congress ( March 6, 2002, and March 21, 2002).

But while the bill passed the House in 2002, Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald blocked it with a filibuster in the Senate. Fitzgerald supported Meigs, but he didn't like the provisions concerning O'Hare International Airport. As Congress adjourned at the close of 2002, AOPA President Boyer pledged to Mayor Daley that AOPA would continue to work to see that the legislation passed in 2003.

Then the blow nobody saw coming: In the early morning of March 31, 2003, Daley and his bulldozers struck, gouging huge Xs in the runway and cutting taxiway entrances. The media was kept at bay; a Chicago fire truck blinded the Internet camera on the nearby Adler Planetarium with a spotlight.

Daley said the deal to save Meigs was void because the Senate hadn't passed the O'Hare legislation. And he claimed he was saving the citizens of Chicago from the "terrorist threat" from the little lakeside airport. He later recanted that claim and admitted he just wanted a park. And the citizens of Chicago never believed the terrorist threat anyhow.

Again, AOPA sprung into action with a 12-point plan to try to restore Meigs Field.

The association filed formal complaints with both the FAA and Illinois Department of Transportation and urged members to boycott the city.

To bring public pressure on Daley, AOPA placed four full-page ads in Chicago's major daily newspapers.

And within the week following the midnight raid, AOPA filed suit in federal court to block further destruction of the airport.

Once again, Boyer testified before Congress on Meigs, and that testimony, coupled with AOPA lobbying, led to the legislation that would punish others who improperly try to close an airport.

The association reminded the new Illinois governor of the consequences of closing Meigs and once again lobbied the Illinois legislature. An amendment that would have saved Meigs was introduced but ultimately was bypassed by Daley partisans.

But what was really needed was a truly bold step, something that would catch the attention of the media and Chicago citizens. And AOPA had just the plan. In a major press conference May 22, attended by every major news outlet in the city, AOPA President Boyer announced AOPA's $41 million buyout plan for Meigs Field. It was a "win-win" solution for all - the city would get nearly $40 million in federal funds that could be used on city parks, and there would be a 20-year guarantee on keeping the airport open. Chicago media played the story big.

But city spokespeople dismissed the idea with half-truths and outright misstatements, and Daley - again - claimed the land belonged to the "people" and the "people" wanted a park.

Meanwhile, action in the courts to save Meigs was not going well. A local group, Friends of Meigs, had filed suit in state court but lost at both the district and appellate levels. And after a federal judge made it very clear to AOPA's attorneys that he was going to rule against the association, AOPA withdrew its federal suit in mid-June.

"Some have criticized AOPA for that," said Boyer, "but I approved the action after weighing all the pros and cons. It was definitely time to end the financial bleeding. To continue that suit would have wasted AOPA members' dollars in a futile action. Not only would we have had to pay our additional court costs and attorney fees, but we would also likely have been held responsible to pay all of Chicago's court costs.

"As a pilot or a manager, you have to recognize when the elements are against you and you need to abandon the approach or risk wrecking the aircraft."

And what did the people of Chicago think about Daley's destruction of Meigs? They didn't like it. Some two thirds of Chicago voters disapproved of Mayor Daley's destruction of Meigs Field Airport, according to a scientific poll published in the Chicago Tribune June 16, 2003. Even a majority of Democrats (Daley's party) didn't like it. And more than 70 percent didn't believe the mayor's claim that the lakeside airport presented a terrorist threat to downtown Chicago.

But Daley didn't care. Having just been reelected to a fourth term with 78% of the vote, and with a reputation for using city resources to punish those who cross him, Daley figured he could do what he wanted - and he did. "I wasn't elected to be a lover boy," he once told the press when pressed about his Meigs attack.

On August 5, 2003, demolition crews began the final destruction of the airport. Today there remains the faint outlines of the runway and taxiways.

In December, President Bush signed the FAA Reauthorization bill, which included the Meigs Legacy provision. AOPA lobbied hard last year for that law, which provides for hefty fines against anyone who closes an airport or runway without giving the FAA required notice.

In February 2004, the FAA said that AOPA's claim that the City of Chicago violated federal law and aviation regulations when it shut down Meigs Field has merit and will be investigated. AOPA filed a formal complaint following the destruction of Meigs' runway on Mayor Richard M. Daley's order, claiming the city failed to provide adequate notice, as required by the FARs. The complaint will not result in the airport's reopening but can lead to the mayor and the city being punished for their actions.

"The fact of the matter is that nothing the FAA eventually does will bring Meigs Field back," said Boyer. "But the FAA's declaring that our complaint has merit sends a message to the next mayor or county supervisor or governor who gets the same idea to shut down an airport in the dark of night - 'don't try it!'"