Gary/Chicago International Airport's longer runway should attract more aviation activity, but key players and observers said it will be more like a slow, steady ascent than a steep climb into the stratosphere.
A model for Gary could be Chicago/Rockford International Airport, which has been successful with leisure airlines and has ranked as a top 25 cargo airport nationally, according to Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
"The prospects are good. But Gary may have to be patient. It may take a few years," he said.
As compared to previous plans, strategic plans drawn up for Gary during the last five years recognized reality and did not predict a boom in regularly scheduled commercial passenger airlines there anytime soon.
But those more recent plans have consistently outlined the potential for attracting charters and leisure-destination airlines — and then utilizing those as a springboard to regularly scheduled commercial passenger service.
The longer runway should help in attaining both those goals, but particularly when it comes to regularly scheduled passenger service, said Wil Davis, owner of Gary Jet Center.
The former 7,000-foot runway, which until last autumn had a 38-foot high railroad embankment at one end, limited the size, type and destination of commercial passenger planes that could use Gary, Davis said.
"If you are ever going to have an airline here, that's the one that would benefit the most, depending on where they want to go from here," Davis said.
Davis offered an appraisal similar to Schwieterman's on the airport's future prospects, saying he believes business at the airport will grow at "a gradual, measured" pace due to the runway expansion.
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Allegiant airline, which was the last airline to fly at Gary before pulling out in summer 2013, had to restrict fuel and passenger loads on some flights because of the railroad embankment. It also had to call off plans to fly to Las Vegas, because the planes could not carry the amount of fuel necessary and still meet federal safety requirements for clearing the embankment.
Those limitations are now a thing of the past, with the main runway lengthened to 8,900 feet, the railroad embankment taken down, and all trains now running beyond a 1,000-foot safety buffer at the runway's northwest end.
Planes began landing and taking off on the longer runway Thursday.
The completion of the Gary runway expansion and the Rauner administration's seeming lack of interest in a South Suburban airport at Peotone means this has been a good year for the Gary airport, Schwieterman said.
"It looks like Peotone has fallen on hard times," Schwieterman said.
The airport at Peotone, a pet project of former Gov. Pat Quinn and many Chicago Southland politicians, has long been viewed by some as a potential rival for Gary.
Proponents for Gary and several studies have concluded the Gary airport could host overflow traffic from O'Hare International or Midway. That would be particularly true of traffic such as just-in-time cargo, corporate jets or charter flights that compete with commercial airlines for air space and landing slots.
"This positions Gary as a much stronger contender to become a major reliever airport," Schwieterman said.
"It won't be the next Dulles airport, as people maybe just 10 years ago were hoping, but it has the advantage of geography."