Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2019 issue
CHICAGO, ILL. – As reported by Amelia Walsh of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA) in a February 14, 2019 article for AOPA, Chicago mayoral candidate, Willie Wilson, had been campaigning on rebuilding and reopening Merrill C. Meigs Field Airport (KCGX) as one of the businessman’s 10-point agenda items. Unfortunately for the aviation community, Wilson lost his bid at the February 26 elections, receiving only 10 percent of the vote, yielding to former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot with 17.5 percent, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle with 16 percent, amid a record field of 14 candidates. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will now move on to an April runoff election – the second-only time in Chicago history for the office of mayor. A runoff election occurs when neither candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. Bill Daley, brother of former mayor, Richard Daley, received 14.7 percent of the vote.
In 2003, then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had bulldozers carve six large Xs in the 3900 by 150 ft runway in the middle of the night, making it unusable and stranding the 16 general aviation aircraft parked on the ramp. The mayor believed that the 40-acre island where the airport was located (Northerly Island, an artificial peninsula on Lake Michigan) could better serve the residents of Chicago as yet another park (Chicago has 570 parks covering more than 7,600 acres) with total disregard to the money the federal government put into the airport over the years.
Under the leadership of then-AOPA President Phil Boyer, AOPA filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago for the mayor’s “reprehensible action.” AOPA was not only concerned that the aviation community would lose Meigs, but that the mayor’s action could set a precedence nationwide for more airport closings.
Once AOPA learned that the judge could not find a legal reason that would prompt him to rule in AOPA’s favor, AOPA withdrew its lawsuit. “The law of public opinion was definitely on AOPA’s side, but in court, that would not have standing,” stated Boyer.
The Federal Aviation Administration did, however, fine the city for prematurely closing the airport before grant assurances had been met, which sent a warning shot to other municipalities contemplating similar action.
According to the article, Meigs was contributing between $300 and $500 million in revenue per year, and the city spent $9.7 million to convert it into a concert venue and nature preserve, generating only $55,000 in annual revenues for the city. This economic impact of the airport is what mayoral candidate Willie Wilson campaigned on to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who announced in September 2018 that he would not seek reelection. Regardless of who wins the election in April, hopefully the loss in city revenue will encourage the new mayor to consider reopening Meigs.
Meigs Field opened on December 10, 1948, and by 1955, the airport had become the busiest single-runway airport in the United States. The latest air traffic control tower was built in 1952 and the terminal was dedicated in 1961. In addition to the runway, there were four public helicopter pads at the south end of the runway.
Meigs Field was not only a general aviation airport, but also provided commuter airline service to many cities in the region. The airport was especially popular among state legislators commuting between Springfield and Chicago. There was also scheduled helicopter airline service between Meigs Field and Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports.
On October 15, 1992, Chicago-based United Airlines flew a Boeing 727-100 to Meigs Field and donated it to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.