The proposed South Suburban Airport could be a rare opportunity to develop an influential and innovative transportation hub, according to an airport expert who spoke in Hazel Crest on Monday, Sept. 25.
Legislation signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in July authorizes the state to begin seeking private partners on Jan. 1 to help develop Bult Field, located on Kedzie Avenue between Monee and Beecher, into a major cargo airport. Project advocates say the development will significantly boost the economy throughout the South Suburbs.
South suburban elected officials and economic development leaders met at Hazel Crest village hall to hear from Angela Gittens, whose credentials in the airport business include her induction this year into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, her terms as CEO of Atlanta Hartsfield and Miami International airports and her leadership at Airports Council International.
The event was sponsored by South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association, Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation, the Chicago Southland Chamber of Commerce and Ida’s Legacy.
“Angela Gittens has followed the long history of the South Suburban Airport,” Delmarie Cobb of Ida’s Legacy said in her introduction. “She believes that our airport, given this location and current aviation trends, has the potential to be one of the most important airports in the world.”
Gittens’ talk focused mainly on the general economic boost an airport can bring to an area. She addressed issues specific to the development of SSA, especially when fielding questions following her presentation.
“Rarely do you get the opportunity to fully build out the ultimate airport on day one,” Gittens said. After they are built, airports have to adapt to changing market and technological conditions, she said, and the process is made more difficult because airports typically can’t shut down to make major changes.
The SSA, if it gets to the development stage, will be an opportunity to build for current and future needs of environmentally sustainable transportation, she said.
“A new airport, such as a South Suburban, can take advantage of new and emerging technology, accommodate new and emerging business activities, and deploy the knowledge we have or are developing regarding resilience and sustainability,” she said.
One key area in which the airport could be a leader is as a producer of sustainable aviation fuel. She said part of the problem with adopting renewable fuels is that fuel distribution still depends on fossil fuel companies, which currently don’t support renewable fuel distribution. But an airport that was a renewable fuel producer would not be dependant on conventional distribution networks.
“That would be a game changer,” she said, and added that it might help motivate other airports to move in that direction. “I can think of some airports … that would be very motivated if Chicago would do something like that.”
She was asked whether the Federal Aviation Administration had approved the proposed airport. She said the agency typically would not provide formal approval until there is a specific proposal to consider, but she believes the agency recognizes the need to increase air capacity in the Chicago area.
“My understanding is they’ve said for a long time, ‘You guys need to do something,'” because the region is underperforming compared to other major markets. “This market is a lot stronger than its performance because of the capacity problems.”
She got applause from SSA advocates for that observation and for her response to a question about whether the airport development depends on a commitment from a major airline.
She said the market determines an airport’s viability, not the interest of a specific airline.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, who represents Homewood and Flossmoor in Congress, has been a longtime supporter of the SSA idea. She thanked Gittens for expressing that view.
“That, of course, has been the supposed obstacle, or one of them,” Kelly said. “But also when you think about big cities all over the world … everyone has a third airport” including some metropolitan areas that are smaller than Chicago.
Gittens was also asked about what reasons people might have for opposing an airport development.
She said airport operations generate noise, which nearby residents might oppose. Some worry about safety, increased vehicle traffic. There’s also the tendency people have of resisting change to familiar terrain.
“Things do change when you have have an airport,” she said.
In answer to the final question about how communities closest to the airport would benefit from the project, Gittens said the first benefit should be involvement.
“Talk to them. What do they want? What do they see?” she said. “You have the opportunity to really bring them in and make them part of the solution, make them part of the plan.”
She said private partners should consider forming a community advisory board, and beyond that, start by hiring local people to help develop the project. She said they should start young, giving high school students opportunities to have a role.
“Get them right away, so it’s their airport,” she said.