The Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority may vote as soon as its next meeting on approving a flight path to financial self-sufficiency.
Airport consultant John Clark said he already has handed a plan to authority board members that revolves around establishing Gary as "Chicago's third airport" and making it the low-cost leader in the Greater Chicago region.
"It is expensive to operate out of Midway and it is expensive to operate out of O'Hare," Clark said Tuesday. "The difference is not only is Gary more convenient, it can also be lower cost than those other airports."
The airport authority at its Tuesday meeting also voted 5-0 to accept a committee recommendation to hire Carolyn Keith as its new finance manager at a salary of $74,000 per year. She will take the post vacated by former finance manager Nikki Thorn, when she resigned in September.
Keith's work record includes serving as a senior auditor at the Chicago Federal Reserve, as well as a senior accountant for Beatrice Cos., in Chicago. She is a Gary resident who once was executive director of business services and corporate treasurer for the Gary Community Schools Corp.
Currently, the Gary airport is supported by fees, charges and rents it already collects; city of Gary taxpayers; and passenger fees collected at O'Hare and Midway. That last source of support comes through the Chicago/Gary Regional Airport Authority, which oversees all three airports.
The Chicago/Gary Regional Airport Authority, under a bi-state compact signed in 1995, contributes more than $1 million per year to Gary's operating budget and is kicking in $7.5 million for the current expansion project.
Clark reminded Gary airport authority members at their meeting Tuesday that Chicago can end its support of the Gary airport with just six months notice. He said the self-sufficiency plan can help it prepare for that eventuality.
Clark, whose JClark Aviation is paid $245 per hour for its services to the airport, said he cannot say now whether fees and charges for landing, fuel and other airport services would go up or down under his plan. He said the fees and the success of the plan will mainly be determined by how quickly the airport can grow its business.
Airport Authority Vice President Rev. Marion Johnson told Clark that Chicago Commissioner of Aviation Rosemarie Andolino has in the past said the Chicago airports are willing to shift some of their overflow traffic to Gary. He said now would be a good time to remind her of that and perhaps Gary could even help out with Milwaukee flights.
Clark also told the board he plans to talk to FAA officials in Chicago and Gary about the airport's recent application for $24 million in additional funding for its expansion project. Cost overruns on that project have ballooned the cost to $166 million, far above original estimates of just $90 million.
Clark's firm has also been engaged in talks with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport about working together to entice an airline to start up flights between Gary and there.