Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority leaders said they aren't intimidated by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's signing of a bill that gives the Illinois Department of Transportation the power to build a rival airport in Peotone.
In fact, they had fighting words after Quinn's Thursday announcement of an additional $71 million in funding to buy all the land needed for the South Suburban Airport.
"We have a functioning airport. They have a cornfield," said Carrie Hightman, a Gary/Chicago International Airport board member and chairwoman of the public-private partnership committee trying to get investors to pump up to $100 million in the airport and the surrounding area.
A national aviation analyst described Chicago's long-discussed third commercial airport as a politically motivated boondoggle that's unneeded and bound to crash-land in failure. Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, chairman of Denver area-based Boyd Group International, said the airline industry has suffered from flat or declining demand for years, and that major airlines don't want or need another Chicagoland airport when they are already struggling to fill seats.
"This is all about politics," Boyd said. "Illinois built one disastrous airport, the (little-used) MidAmerica St. Louis Airport. Why do they want another one? Gary isn't a garden spot, but its airport has good access and is already there."
Gary airport officials will continue to press forward with its $166 million runway expansion project and efforts to encourage more development nearby. Gary airport leaders said the South Suburban Airport would be too far out of the way to be a viable competitor for freight, passenger service or general aviation.
The prospect of a commercial airport in rural Peotone, which has not yet been approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, should not threaten or affect Gary's bid to land more private investment, Hightman said.
"We're operating an airport with lots of land around it, not farmland that's basically in the middle of Illinois," she said. "The opportunities in Northwest Indiana are valuable and far and above what's available in Peotone. We're moving forward, and we've had great expression of interest."
The greater Chicagoland metro area is large enough to support another airport anyway, even if the South Suburban Airport — which has been discussed since the 1960s — ever does gets built, Hightman said.
Gary/Chicago International Airport will remain a reliever airport for O'Hare and Midway, said the Rev. Marion Johnson, an airport authority board member. The Gary airport is much closer to downtown Chicago than Peotone, and is easily accessible by Interstate 80/94, the Indiana Toll Road and the South Shore Line.
Three of the biggest trucking companies in the country already are located near the airport, cementing its place as a cargo hub, Johnson said. Gary/Chicago International also has established business, such as the Boeing's executive jet fleet.
"We have a head start of 100 years," he said. "We're 100 years out front and should be built up and going full blast by the time that's built."
Gary Jet Center owner Wil Davis said a new South Suburban Airport likely wouldn't have much impact on his business, which manages jets, runs charter flights and handles fueling and cargo operations at the airport. The Peotone location doesn't have the same population base and is hard to reach.
"They figure if they build it, they will come, but it's a long shot that it would draw people unless they got an airline service out there," he said.
The demand doesn't justify the construction of another airport, especially at a time when national passenger traffic is declining 2 to 3 percent year over year, Boyd said. A third airport likely wouldn't be viable unless they shut down O'Hare and Midway, he said.
"There's going to be enough doctored data about how desperately it's needed to fill the fiction section at Barnes and Noble," Boyd said. "They're going to produce glowing documents about how badly it's needed, but the reality is that air passenger transportation is not growing anymore."