Feb. 11, 2004 — AOPA's claim that the city of Chicago violated federal law and aviation regulations when it shut down Meigs Field last March has merit, says the FAA, and will be investigated. AOPA filed a formal complaint following the destruction of Meigs's 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.
"AOPA intends to push for the appropriate penalty to be imposed on the city," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Mayor Daley and any other state or local official who may want to follow Daley's lead must be made to understand they cannot unilaterally change the National Airspace System."
The manager of the FAA's Enforcement Division sent a letter of response to AOPA's complaint against both the mayor and the city, saying "reasonable grounds exist" to begin an informal investigation into the allegations.
AOPA maintains that Daley and the city of Chicago violated both the U.S. Code and Federal Aviation Regulations. The U.S. Code states that an airport or landing area not involving the expenditure of federal money may be altered substantially "only if the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration is given reasonable prior notice, so that the Administrator may provide advice on the effects" of the alteration. In order for the administrator to carry out that obligation, Federal Aviation Regulations state that anyone intending to alter a runway, deactivate a runway or airport, or change the status of an airport must submit notice of that intent at least 90 days prior to taking such action.
The FARs do provide for immediate emergency action, such as in the case of national security, which was Daley's original claim. However, even in the case of an emergency, if the airport has a charted instrument approach, which Meigs Field did, a minimum of 30 days' notice must be given.
An informal investigation proceeds at the discretion of the assigned investigator, in this case the manger of the Chicago Airports District Office of the FAA's Great Lakes Region. At the end of the investigation, the FAA will issue an Enforcement Investigative Report. If the report suggests that there's evidence to proceed, then the FARs say "a notice of proposed order may be issued or other enforcement action taken." That enforcement could be anything up to and including fining the city for its action. There is no time limit for an informal investigation, but any civil penalty action must be taken within two years of the event — in this case by March 30, 2005.
To ensure that nothing like the Meigs debacle happens again, AOPA lobbied hard on Capitol Hill for the Meigs Legacy provision, which is part of the 2003 FAA Reauthorization bill. It provides for hefty fines against anyone who closes an airport or runway without giving the FAA the required notice.
"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!'"