Meigs Field in early February.
Photo courtesy of AOPA member Lee Hogan.
Mar. 30, 2004 - Could we possibly forget? One year ago, in the early morning hours, heavy equipment rumbled through the fence around Meigs Field and carved trenches in the runway, all on the orders of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
"We look back with both horror and pride," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Horror at the loss of an airport, but pride in the extraordinary efforts that AOPA and our members put in to trying to save Meigs. And pride in the continuing - and successful - efforts to preserve other general aviation airports."
Out of the Meigs effort, for example, have come such innovations as the AOPA Airport Support Network and a new federal law, the "Meigs Legacy" provision that imposes hefty fines on anyone who closes an airport without the proper notice to FAA.
In response to member opinion, AOPA committed nearly half a million dollars since last March to save Meigs. And it was money well spent, because although the airport was ultimately lost, what came out of the effort today is being applied to save airports everywhere.
"Meigs was unique," said Boyer. "From 1996 on, it was literally a private airport. Legally, Chicago was free to do whatever it wanted with the property. We actually kept the airport open seven years longer than the mayor intended."
In 1994, Daley announced plans to close the airport and build a park in its place on Northerly Island. He could do that because of a unique FAA grant agreement that gave him an "escape clause." While most federal grants to airports specify that the airport must remain open 20 years, the Meigs grant obligated the city to maintain the airport only for the length of its lease for the land. Northerly Island was owned by the Chicago Park District, which refused to renew the airport lease in 1996. Without the federal obligation in place, the airport became private property.
But Meigs was too important to let go without a fight. AOPA immediately began a multifaceted campaign to save the airport. That included extensive public relations efforts, including advertising in major Chicago newspapers and on television. The association lobbied on behalf of Meigs in both the Illinois legislature and Congress. AOPA and other plaintiffs filed suits in both federal and state courts.
AOPA even proposed and announced to the citizens of Chicago a unique "win-win" solution that would have preserved the airport and garnered federal dollars that could have been used to improve city parks.
The association kept up the fight until it was clear that no legal, regulatory, or legislative remedy was left. Public pressure failed as well. Daley, who had been reelected by an overwhelming majority, claimed he knew what the "people" wanted, and the "people" wanted a park. [ Read more details on the history of AOPA's work on Meigs Field.]
There remains an FAA investigation, instigated by a formal AOPA complaint. The FAA agreed in February that there were "reasonable grounds" to look at whether Chicago violated federal regulations by the way it closed the airport. That investigation continues, and it may result in fines against the city. But it won't reopen the airport. AOPA has moved on to fight for other airports. "Friends of Meigs," a local group, continues, though, with a proposal that would create a park and rebuild an airport on Northerly Island.
But what came out of AOPA's Meigs efforts are having lasting benefits for AOPA members. The AOPA Airport Support Network, established in 1997, was inspired by Meigs. Today there are some 1,600 ASN volunteers serving as the front-line troops in the battle to save airports.
To ensure that nothing like the Meigs debacle happens again, AOPA lobbied hard on Capitol Hill for the Meigs Legacy provision that is part of the FAA Reauthorization bill. It provides for hefty fines against anyone who closes an airport or runway without giving the FAA the required notice.
AOPA continues to successfully challenge airport closures everywhere. Last year, for example, the association committed significant resources to help local advocates save Albert Whitted Field (SPG) in St. Petersburg, Florida. Those efforts lead to an extraordinary public vote, with the citizens of St. Petersburg telling their politicians that they wanted the airport. AOPA is fighting training restrictions at Pompano Airpark (PMP) in Florida and attempts to move Concord, California's Buchanan Field (CCR). The association is working with local officials in lower New York State to encourage them to buy an airport from a private owner in order to keep it open to the public.
"Every airport is different, and none have the unique clauses of Meigs," said Boyer. "But whatever the case, AOPA is committed to saving airports - and we'll do whatever it takes to keep general aviation runways open for our members."