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Eight Forty-Eight

Gary Airport Aims High

The City of Chicago is moving along with plans to lease Midway Airport, though the FAA must still sign off on the nearly $3 billion deal. Midway is Chicago's second busiest airport after O'Hare, handling 18 million passengers a year. Meanwhile, across the state line in Indiana, the Gary-Chicago International Airport is struggling to find even one passenger airline that will stick around. Now, the idea of privatizing the Gary airport is getting some new attention.

Trying to get sound for an airport story at the Gary airport would seem easy enough, you would think.

But with not much activity going on at the Gary Chicago International Airport these days, I've had to wait and wait and wait for an airplane to finally arrive.

With no passenger flights, the small terminal closed and the parking lot full of snow, I began to wonder: Is the airport even open anymore?

CURRY: There's a lot of activity going on. That's not really counting any of the new military activity that will be happening as well.

Chris Curry runs the Gary airport.  He says even without a passenger carrier, the last commercial flight was back in April when SkyBus ended operations, the airport is doing brisk business.

CURRY: The airport I believe is on pace this year to do about 40,000 operations. We do a significant amount of cargo, smaller planes. We do several charter flights to different places for different organizations.

Plus, says Curry, a new $18-million Indiana National Guard facility is keeping the airport busy.

Chicago-based Boeing Corporation has a fleet of corporate jets at Gary. And, privately operated Gary Jet Center handles corporate flights. And, Curry's got his sights on Air Force One.

CURRY: I would love for Gary to be the home for the President when he comes back to Chicago. I think that's a possibility when you consider the fact that he's landed here about four or five times when he was campaigning for president.

Curry says the airport is moving ahead with plans to make its primary and cross wind run runways longer to handle larger aircrafts.

The airport is still receiving millions in federal and state development money. But for some, the airport's improvement isn't happening fast enough.

Gary's Mayor Rudy Clay wonders if a move to privatize the airport would help the airport attract new business and help shore up the city of Gary's sagging budget.

CLAY: You must look at what happen at Midway Airport and Mayor Daley, they got approximately $2.8 billion there. So, if a public-private partnership issue should come on the table, which there are some people talking, you've got to take a good hard look at.

Aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University isn't so sure investors would be willing to throw money at the Gary airport.

SCHWIETERMAN: Gary is a real wildcard. It clearly has enormous potential but there's a clearly sign that the market hasn't warmed up to the idea to a lot of commercial service there. It's going to make bidders apprehensive. It's hard to see Gary commanding a whole lot of money right now in this market.

Schwieterman says he likes the improvements he's seen at the Gary airport. Things like a new terminal, free parking and he says commercial airlines got good service.

Plus, with O'hare and Midway facing capacity issues, Schwieterman says could benefit.

SCHWIETERMAN: I think we're all rooting for Gary because we all see this as a good urban infill development but nevertheless this is going to be a difficult thing to package for Wall Street.

Airport director Chris Curry says he's heard no suggestions about privatizing the airport, including from the airport authority.<

He says hes living in the present: Working on ways to build up the airport so when the market is ready, the airport will be too. That includes lengthening the cross-wind runway to about 5,500 feet.

CURRY: I think it starts with a vision and it starts with a vision that you can believe in. I think we build the airport out so that's truly viable and it's attractive to airlines.

That "If They Build It" mentality has the airport constantly on the look-out for a commercial airline.

Ironically, the airport lost out last summer on landing a Mexican-based airliner because constructing a customs terminal at this international airport proved too costly.

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