Gary Airport Readies for Takeoff | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Gary Airport Readies for Takeoff

You might think Chicago has only two regional airports: Midway and O'Hare. But people just over the Indiana border beg to differ. Gary Chicago International Airport is relatively successful when it comes to cargo and private jets, but it's struggled to attract passenger airlines. Boosters predict Gary airport can siphon off air traffic from Chicago, but that's been said time and time before. Right now, the airport enters a new stage in its development.

Chris Curry has been the head of the Gary Chicago International Airport for the last four years, but his tenure ended this week. He's leaving for a new airport director's gig in Florida. Ironically, Curry won't be able to catch a flight from Gary airport to get to his new job.

That's because there are no passenger flights in and out of Gary. One reason major airlines have stayed away is that the main runway isn't long enough for them.

Curry says the airport started looking at extending the runway a decade ago, but it only settled key details recently.

CURRY: I would have hoped that the project would have been done before I arrived at Gary. But I'm hopeful that it will happen now within the next two years.

And here's why Curry's optimistic.

CURRY: In over the last three or four years, we've made significant progress. We've purchased more than a 180 acres of property to add to the airport expansion. We've built a 38,000-foot corporate hanger. So, there's been a lot of work done leading towards the runway expansion program.

Here's the thing, though. Even if Gary airport does pull through and extends its runway, it's not clear it can attract new carriers and passengers.

CURRY: There's a lot of other factors that influence the development of Gary. There's not too many airports that are located next to a major low cost carrier focused city as in Southwest at Midway and the second largest airport in the world, which is O'Hare.

Well, competition with the region's other two existing airports are only part of Gary airport's problems. You might remember some in Illinois hope to develop an airport 50 miles south of Chicago in rural Peotone.

That could mean Gary and Peotone would scramble after the same carriers. Gary Airport board member Marion Johnson says he's not worried.

JOHNSON: I actually feel that Gary is in a one-horse race right now. Peotone has a corn field. We are an airport.

Johnson says if Gary can continue making enhancements, Peotone won't be a factor.

JOHNSON: So I don't even worry about them. Just get this built out like it ought to be built out and then Peotone is out on their own. There's no competition.

Gary Airport's biggest booster says there's another reason it'll come out on top – and it's a simple one.

CLAY: “It's not that far away. You can throw a rock from the state line over to Chicago, to the Chicago Loop.”

That's Gary's mayor Rudy Clay and all kidding aside, Clay says after decades of trying, time has come for the airport to finally take off and become an economic engine.

The next step is getting the main runway extended. Clay says a qualified firm to help do that is now in place.

CLAY: That runway must and shall be done by the end of the year 2013. That airport is very important for not only, as I say, Gary but Northwest Indiana and the Chicago region too!

Getting back to the airport's outgoing director, Chris Curry, he's not going to be around for all these changes. But he says the Gary Airport will become a commercial airline success.

But I've lived in Northwest Indiana, and I've heard this many times before.

PUENTE: What do you say to people like me, not just in Chicago but Northwest Indiana who say that airport's never going to take off anywhere. It's fruitless.

CURRY: The only thing that you can do is invest in the airport if you believe in it and make it viable so that when an opportunity comes, you are an airport that's ready to accept. But there are no guarantees at the end of the rainbow.

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