Regional by Day, National by Night

If you view the ramp at Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport at Rockford, (RFD) during the day, it looks like a rather small, sleepy, hometown regional airport, but drive up to the RFD ramp after midnight and you will experience a booming metropolis, reports Karen Reinhardt

February 2004

Close Encounters

When most airports are winding down for the day, Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport at Rockford, formerly branded as the Greater Rockford Airport(RFD), is ramping up by 10 p.m. to ground handle up to 26 jets (32 during the holidays) and at least a half dozen small feeder aircraft. With three cargo airlines (United Parcel Service being the largest), four fixed base operations, and four aircraft maintenance services, RFD operates as a collaborative community always keeping the customer in the forefront. "It is a very positive affair between UPS, Rockford and the surrounding community; from RFD's committment to us to the employment opportunities [UPS offers]," explains George Piloto, UPS Ramp Division Manager.

A well-kept secret, the word is finally getting out that RFD has progressively evolved from a general aviation facility to a dynamic commercial service airport and major transportation center of the Midwest. According to Bob O'Brien, Executive Director of Aviation, RFD is presently ranked as the twenty-third largest air cargo airport in the nation when measured by landed weight compared to Chicago-O'Hare which is ranked 8th and Milwaukee, which is ranked 51. Last year alone, 1.4 billion pounds of cargo was brought through RFD. "RFD is a unique creature," claims O'Brien, "most people are totally unaware that we have an airport here, Rockford is a community on the way to Chicago at best. But the airport they have here has been an international grade airport since 1997."

A Serendipitous Event

The process of air cargo development at RFD started in 1993 when, due to a catastrophic storm that paralyzed their major hub in Louisville, Kentucky for three days, UPS chose Rockford as a relief contingent facility. As UPS' business grew, their Rockford hub was built with the vision that it would always be a diversionary for flights that can't get into Louisville initially. In 1994, when the facility officially opened, it had seven jets, a year later 14, and within three years that number climbed to 26 jets a night. A 26 year veteran with UPS and Ramp Division Manager at RFD since 1999, George Piloto aptly states, "Had it not been for UPS in the early 90's coming in, the Greater Rockford Airport wouldn't have been able to get the [funding] to have two all-clear world-class runways." This includes a Category III Instrument Landing System, cargo ramps capable of 727-747 operations (UPS alone has 63 acres) and 6,250 square feet of cargo building space. Today, the Rockford Regional Air Hub is the second largest of six regional airports that support the main UPS mother hub in Louisville.

The two major divisions that run the UPS air facility every night are hub and ramp, which together are comprised of approximately 1,200 employees unloading between 140,000-170,000 packages (peak 250,000) out of 400 containers (also known as pods), coming from 20 different cities nationwide. When running a "metropolis" one needs the infrastructure and the organization to operate it. "The best way to describe UPS is the Marine Corps," according to Piloto. "It is a very rigid, highly engineered, extremely efficient company and we count seconds literally every night. Everything we do here is measured," he says.

Piloto currently runs 20 K-Loaders, 130 tugs, close to 300 dollies, six Air Starts and six GPUs. A DC8 has 18 positions topside and it takes 23 minutes from wheels-stopped to last container off the aircraft. In his description of the 'dress-right-dress' process," Piloto explains, "The container comes off the aircraft, goes into the building where they unload it, and the package travels anywhere from eight to fifteen minutes on one of five miles of belts. Once the container is reloaded it is all sequenced and then goes through a scale house operations building for weight and balance." Within 45 minutes they are loaded into the aircraft for departure.
According to Piloto, all equipment and employees at Rockford and their major gateways are UPS. He proudly states, "UPS is a completely contained organization, with the exception of fueling and lavatory services that are contracted out to the FBO's."

Meeting Your Needs
RFD is also home to Emery Air, Inc., North American Aviation Group, Rubloff Development and Swissport CFE, Inc., offering several FBO options to meet a full spectrum of cargo aviation services, from refueling to maintenance to complete cargo operations management. "Everybody's got a niche here. You won't normally find four FBO's at one airport, but I think it speaks volumes towards what's probably going to be happening here in the next months to three years," states an enthusiastic O'Brien.

As the principal FBO and service provider at RFD, Emery Air's ( services include cargo handling, de-icing, refueling, lav service, ULD repair, jet maintenance, piston and turbine maintenance, warbird maintenance specialists and an avionics department. In 1993, Emery's primary business was aircraft operation and maintenance. According to John Emery, President, "The FBO side of our business was small. When UPS decided to build the Northern Illinois Air Hub at Rockford, we told them we did not want to be a service provider, but would rather be considered their partner because we have a vested interest in their success."

In addition to being a traditional FBO Emery capitalizes on some needs that are better out-sourced then internalized by a cargo operator. For example, Emery has a contract with UPS to repair the cargo shipping containers ( ULDs). Each one is considered an aircraft component and therefore repairs and meticulous records are maintained through their FAA approved repair station on the airport.

Though UPS maintains its own fuel farm (1.9 million gallons in pure storage) and owns their fuel trucks, Emery does the contracted support for fuel for UPS, Airborne and Bax Global. They also fuel all GSE equipment, including two fueling stations at night, provide lavatory service, catering and maintain all fuel trucks in their GSE repair facility. Emery Air's CEO Steve Thomas explains, "With the extensive services we provide, combined with the excellent airport facilities and representative market of Chicagoland, Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin, RFD is an attractive location for airline and corporate aircraft operators. And through the collaborative efforts with airport management together with the positive elements of airport facilities, location and FBO services, we have a winning team."

A Bright Future

Being strategically and geographically centered with 2.3 million people living within a 50 mile radius and the ability to be a maintenance base with close proximity to six major airports, RFD seems to be a viable alternative for the region when it comes to air cargo and passengers. In August 2003, Trans Meridian Airlines (TMA), a leading U.S. charter airline based in Atlanta, Georgia and the aircraft underneath Funjet Tours, started 6 flights a week to Orlando, Florida and two flights a week to Las Vegas, Nevada. In addition, O'Brien stated that they are negotiating a contract with Hungarian Airlines and their Ambassador to start a non-stop international flight to central Europe. Also, RFD has recently met with Southwest Airlines, Jet Blue and other airlines who might consider coming to Rockford. "Prior to August we had zero passengers, right now we are on pace of doing about 50,000 passengers in the next year and within three to five years we'll be doing 500,000 passengers," declares O'Brien.

With the many benefits RFD offers to cargo operations including excellent facilities, a congestion-free airspace and proximity to Chicago O'Hare, it is expected, according to O'Brien, that RFD, which also lodges Airborne Express, and BAX Global facilities, in the months and years to come will see more air cargo operations use the facility, such as the Russian NSO124 aircraft that came through with its delivery twice in December. "We are branding ourselves as the Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport at Rockford," explains O'Brien, ."So that people will come to learn there is a viable alternative. A hassle free, low-cost, high value, regional airport is what we provide."

According to O'Brien, over the past few years more than $170 million has been invested in infrastructure improvements and facilities at RFD and the airport is in the midst of a $13 million airport improvement program. The diverse activities at RFD cause it to have a greater economic impact on the region it serves than any other commercial service airport in the State of Illinois, excluding the city of Chicago's system of airports, explains O'Brien. "In the last two years we've taken an entirely different approach to managing, developing and operating the airport; we don't see the glass as half empty, we see it as half full. The community of Rockford was prepared to change, in a radical way, the way they do business relative to the airport. I believe that RFD is sitting on a gold mine."

As we all know, in the past two years travel has been fraught with difficulties. If Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport at Rockford (RFD) continues to deliver on its promise of hassle-free travel with low fares, free parking, and no lines for its passengers; and congestion-free airspace and full-service ramp support for cargo aircraft-then the sky's the limit for this "sleepy, hometown" airport.