A market report on Gary/Chicago International Airport says charter and niche airlines hold the most promise for the airport's immediate future, with shuttling professional sports teams and ferrying oil rig roughnecks among the possibilities.
The report, prepared in early 2012, also wades into the controversial discussion of rebranding the airport, possibly with a new name, and regionalizing the Airport Authority Board.
The Market Assessment and Strategy Development for the airport was prepared by international airport planning firm Landrum & Brown as a followup to a strategic business plan it developed in 2010, said Bill Hanna, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
"As the economy comes back, the whole Chicago aviation setup will be primed for realignment," Hanna said. "It will be time for us to take advantage as the economy comes back."
The market assessment maintains the Gary airport could tap into the big market for charters in the greater Chicago region, with other airports in the region flying a total of about 450,000 charter passengers per year.
Gary also could tap into unique niche markets within the charter industry such as professional and college sports teams and the transport of laborers and skilled workers to the Alberta oil sands in Canada, according to the market assessment.
The report states the prognosis is poor for now for attracting even the regional subsidiaries of legacy carriers like Delta Airlines or United Airlines. It also says traditional low-cost carriers like Southwest remain a stretch for the airport. But low-frequency niche airlines could find Gary attractive.
The market assessment when complete will cost the RDA about $210,000 to $230,000, with the money coming out of contingency funds available in a $30 million grant the RDA extended to the airport expansion project, Hanna said.
He said both the RDA board and the Airport Authority Board will be asked to approve the market assessment sometime in the future.
The marketing assessment was discussed by the previous Airport Authority Board, which was replaced by an entirely new authority board in September. Hanna said the new board has been focused on the runway expansion and public-private partnership effort, so he didn't know if they had yet reviewed the assessment.
Gary Airport Interim Director B.R. Lane could not be reached for comment.
Last week, the Gary Airport Authority voted 5-1 to approve terms of agreements with a Dulles, Va.-based company for operating the airfield and managing development there for the next 40 years.
Whereas the strategic business plan prepared in 2010 found the Gary airport was not ready for privatization, the marketing plan doesn't mention the subject.
The market assessment does state finishing the $166 million airport expansion project is absolutely critical to the airport's success, just as the strategic business plan did three years ago.
The market assessment states the timing is not right for renaming the airport or restructuring the airport authority board. But is spends many pages discussing the possible advantages of both.
The rebranding talked about in the market assessment does not necessarily call for renaming the airport, Hanna said. He acknowledged that has been a contentious issue. Rebranding could include other facets of the airport such as changing public perception.
In some ways the market assessment already has been overtaken by events on the ground.
It spends many pages extolling the virtues and synergies that Allegiant airline brought to the airport. It even describes the possibility of upgrading the twice-weekly Allegiant flights to Orlando-Sanford International into twice-daily flights and expanding service to destinations as far distant as Hawaii.
In August, Allegiant ceased flying from Gary, once again leaving the airport without regularly scheduled airline service.