The final demolition of Chicago's Meigs Field Airport may be just weeks away. The Chicago Parks District is expected to award a $1.5 million contract next week to Pacific Construction Services to finish tearing up the runway, plant new greenery, and conduct environmental surveys to turn the airport into a park, according to the Chicago Tribune. The company has received several Park District contracts in recent years.
Meanwhile, AOPA continues to pursue its formal FAA complaint against the city for improperly closing the airport. The FAA told AOPA Friday that the complaint is currently under review in the agency's legal department.
A Chicago city alderman has called for public hearings to question Mayor Daley's secret midnight destruction of the airfield. Alderman Joe Moore has suggested the city reconsider the AOPA plan proposed in May that would have the city buy the airport from the park district using federal funds. But Moore, an independent Democrat, is not likely to get the hearings. The city council Aviation Committee is controlled by a staunch Daley ally who, according to Chicago political observers, is no more likely to hold the hearings than the mayor is likely to change his mind about Meigs.
"Since 1994, AOPA has committed a significant amount of money and association resources on trying to save Meigs," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And in my heart, I'm still not ready to give up. But I also have to say in all honesty that I don't think I'll ever land again at Meigs Field."
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.
Even now, AOPA continues to press its formal complaints with the FAA and the Illinois Department of Transportation over the closure of Meigs.
The FAA reauthorization bills approved by the U.S. House and Senate both contain the "Meigs Legacy Amendment"—which AOPA helped write and lobbied for—that would prevent closure of an airport without providing sufficient notice and establish a $10,000 a day fine.
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 multi-faceted 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 Want 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 the 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 late evening of March 30, 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 the 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 do 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. 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 doesn't care. Having just been reelected to a fourth term with 78 percent of the vote, and with a reputation for using city resources to punish those who cross him, Daley figures he can do what he wants—and he does. "I wasn't elected to be a lover boy," he once told the press when pressed about his Meigs attack.
"When it was all said and done, how the mayor closed the airport may have been illegal, but the courts so far have affirmed that he had the legal right to do it," said Boyer. "AOPA and other Meigs supporters have tried everything from public, legislative, and congressional pressure to lawsuits to get Daley to see reason. But even the disapproval of his own voters hasn't dissuaded him.
"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. With the help and support of our members, we've fought one hell of a fight."