For the Love of Meigs

While unpopular with non-flyers, airports in densely populated areas are needed and should be protected.

When I read about the lack of progress at the Northern Island redevelopment near downtown Chicago in political columnist Greg Hinz’s blog last week, I felt a familiar sense of nausea. It was the feeling I got when I first saw a picture of the large Xs carved into one of the most incredible aviation landmarks in the United States, Meigs Field. I experienced the same feeling when I saw the island from Sears Tower a couple of years after the airport closed. Today the field looks much the same as it did then – an unsightly field with some basic paths and temporary tent-like structures.

I’m all for recreation. I love to run, walk, hike and ride bikes, and if the Chicago shoreline was a concrete jungle, I would sympathize with the supporters of the Meigs closure. However, most of the waterfront was already lined with parks and walkways, so there were plenty of areas for fitness freaks and outdoor enthusiasts to get their kicks. I’m assuming that all of these parks cost the City a fair amount of money to maintain. So I’m not surprised there is no money for the Northern Island redevelopment project, as Hinz indicated in his blog. There was no need for another park, but there was and still is a need for Meigs Field.

I was fortunate enough to fly into Meigs before Mayor Richard M. Daley’s incomprehensible order in March 2003 to demolish the beautiful general aviation field. With a perfect view of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan, the approach into Meigs was so spectacular that Microsoft Flight Simulator used the airport as its default (until the 2004 edition, after the airport had closed). The airport was located within walking distance of a large convention center and a stone’s throw from downtown Chicago, making it very convenient for businessmen and other visitors alike.

But a the time when I flew into Meigs in early 2002, the city of Chicago had already made it very undesirable to land there, charging massive landing fees, possibly in an effort to reduce the number of operations to make it look like the airport was no longer needed. I can’t remember exactly how much I paid, but I do remember being charged excessive fees, even though I only stayed briefly to refuel the Cessna 172 I was delivering to a flight school in Wabash, Indiana. Friends of Meigs spokesman Steven Whitney told me there were landing and security fees of about $60 for single engine airplanes, and that sounds about right. Fees for larger airplanes landing at Meigs were higher those at Midway, according to Whitney.

While my one visit to Meigs made me fall in love with the field, part of my enthusiasm against airport closures stem from the fact that my local airport, Santa Monica Airport, is being threatened by city officials and locals. Like Meigs, Santa Monica Airport lies on prime real estate, in this case less than 20 blocks from the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, and has been there for nearly 100 years. Despite the airport’s rich history and continuous activity (more than 100,000 operations annually), little by little, non-aviation related endeavors such as playgrounds and soccer fields are taking over the coveted land, and many hangars are filled with cars and motorcycles rather than airplanes. Landing fees, though low, have also been implemented in the past decade and the number of operations has dropped since then. But where would those 100,000 airplanes and helicopters go if the airport were no longer there? LAX? Van Nuys? These airports are grossly overused already and I can’t imagine them being able to safely accommodate another 100,000 aircraft operations.

But regardless of the need for the airport, some Santa Monica and Los Angeles City Councilmen are tirelessly working to find reasons, however far from the truth they may be, to close it. They use scare tactics such as airplane fumes polluting the local playgrounds and making children sick. What they don’t talk about is how much pollution a mall would produce with the increased car traffic, constant air conditioners and fast food restaurants spewing out fumes into the environment.

The City Councilmen are also trying to make their people believe that airplanes carrying student pilots are falling out of the sky and that the flight schools at Santa Monica should be closed. And a few vocal locals are complaining that their peace and quiet is being disturbed by airplane noise, even though most of them moved into the area decades after the airport were built. The battle between anti-airport activists and airport supporters has been going on for years and I’m fearful that, one day, all that will remain of Santa Monica Airport is a museum. But I will continue to participate in the battle to keep it.

Since noise, pollution and airplanes overflying populated areas could not be used as potential excuses to close Meigs, Daley’s equally unreasonable grounds for bulldozing the runway in the middle of the night was to protect his citizens from a potential terror attack, similar to the 9-11 tragedy. But, as Whitney pointed out to me, the city is possibly less safe now that there are no longer ATC controllers monitoring the area, as they were when the airport was in operation.

Realizing the serious need for a third major airport in the Chicago metropolitan area, the city is now looking at other properties to start anew. A new anti airport group – Shut This Airport Nightmare Down (S.T.A.N.D. for short) has begun to organize itself against the potential development in Peotone, Illinois. Not a lot of people want an airport in their backyard, yet most people want easy access to travel. In my opinion Meigs was in the perfect location, where neither approaches nor departures were flown over homes, but where the airport was located very close to the downtown area. Whitney told me no serious efforts are put forth by the Friends of Meigs to reopen the airport, but I hope that soon we’ll all have an opportunity to once again fly into Meigs Field.

View our Meigs Field photo gallery.

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