Gary Airport, Reconsidered

Gary/Chicago International Airport, backed by federal and state funding, as well as renewed community support, prepares for growth.

It’s the tracks that Karas says have been an obstacle in attracting air service to Gary. “We have a 7,000-foot runway — longer than Midway, as long as LaGuardia, and longer than anything at Reagan (National) — except that we have a 15-foot high embankment with a railroad at the end of it. We need to move [the railroad tracks].”

While the runway is long enough for safe operations, explains Karas, it does impact procedural requirements. “If you lose an engine in Stage II — that’s the rule, you assume you lose an engine — and a 15-foot high hill assumes, in procedure, that there’s a 23-foot high train on it, you’ve got a 38-foot high obstruction.” When Southeast Airlines was providing service out of Gary, Karas says the airline was impacted by this, particularly in the warmer months. They were flying DC-9s and were limited to filling 90 seats out of 110; with MD-80s it was 150 seats out of 165. “Airlines don’t want to risk the hot weather load limitations here,” he says.

Karas expects the railroad relocation project to be complete by the end of 2007. The estimated $85 million project includes some $35 million for land cleanup, civil works and infrastructure; some $20 million for extending the runway; some $15 million to relocate power lines; roughly $8 million for land acquisition; and, miscellaneous costs and contingencies.

Karas says the airport’s location makes it ideal for growth, with convenient access to the Indiana Toll Road, South Shore railroad, the Chicago Skyway, and the I-80/94 expressway. The airport is surrounded by industrial property, brown fields, vacant property, truck terminals, rail yards, and sewage treatment plants, “We’re not going to bother anybody,” says Karas. “We’ve got 700 acres of property. In another year or so, we’re going to be at about 1,000 acres.” Current expansion projections, show that not a single home will be affected by the airport’s expansion program, which Karas calls a 40-year plan. Gary/Chicago’s master plan, which was approved in 2002, shows a new terminal capable of handling 30-35 million passengers annually through 43 gates. Karas expects with two runways the airport could see 200,000 to 300,000 operations a year, depending on aircraft type and time of day.

Marketing, Air Service Hits and Misses

Williams says studies put the catchment area of Gary Airport at some 9 million travelers. The airport’s target market is Northwest Indiana as well as the south suburbs of Chicago, north to downtown. “There’s a lot more convenient access to Gary than to Midway or O’Hare for a lot of people,” says Williams. The airport also offers free parking, something she calls another strategic advantage for the airport.

For airlines considering serving Gary, Williams says the airport has some of the most reasonable rates and charges: the landing fee is 58 cents per 1,000 pounds.

Gary International has had some success in attracting scheduled air carrier service in recent years. From November 1999 to early 2002, Pan Am was offering flights to Sanford/Orlando. On the heels of Pan Am’s departure, relates Williams, Southeast Airlines came in serving the St. Petersburg and Sanford/Orlando, FL markets as well. And, shortly after Southeast’s departure, Hooters Air came to Gary; by the time it ended service in January 2006 it was flying to St. Petersburg, FL; Myrtle Beach, NC; Nassau, Bahamas; and Las Vegas. “Las Vegas has always been top on our list,” says Williams. “Because of the six casinos in this region, we have a very pro-gaming community always looking for options.”

The airport does offer an incentive package to new carriers, which includes marketing dollars that the airport is in charge of, without exception. Williams says the airlines approve the ads, but it’s the responsibility of the airport to develop them and place them either on radio, TV, or billboards. “We know the market and our agencies have the best economy of scale in terms of media rates in the highly expensive Chicago market,” says Williams. “As opposed to seat guarantees or just writing checks to the airlines, no matter what advertising is done, it still benefits the Gary/Chicago Airport.”

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