Rockford Gets It Right

All the right ingredients – from equipment to destinations to prices and service—mix up a recipe for success at Chicago’s “third” airport


I subscribe to the belief that if you have the right equipment, go to the right destinations, at the right time, for the right price, you will fill airplanes,” says Mike Dunn, director at Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD).

And statistics from RFD’s recent past offer irrefutable evidence that Dunn’s philosophy is more fact than fiction.

In 2012, RFD set its second highest passenger traffic record, with a 10 percent increase in traffic. Dunn predicts double-digit growth this year too, noting the airport is tracking to be at least 15 percent over 2012 numbers by the close of 2013.

The airport also posts strong load factor numbers. In fact, a Sixel Consulting Group study released in mid-2012 reported RFD had the highest load factor among airports in the Great Lakes region—with the majority of its flights at least 89 percent full.

“We tell airlines, ‘If you give us seats, we can fill them,’ ” says Dunn. “Our high load factor is an important figure that proves this statement and demonstrates that our routes and business model are sustainable for airlines.”

The number of destinations RFD serves also continues to soar, with two coming on-board in the first two months of 2013 and more expected before year’s end. In January the airport launched nonstop service to Montego Bay, Jamaica, via Apple Vacations, and in February added year-long service to Fort Myers, Fla., via Allegiant Airlines.

“We have Allegiant going to five destinations; Frontier going to one; and Apple going to three,” Dunn says. “They are all great locations (Jamaica, Fort Myers, Cancun, Denver, Punta Cana, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix and Tampa Bay). They are price friendly carriers. And they are using jets and providing nonstop service.”

How does an airport nestled in a mid-sized, Midwestern city lying just 65 miles away from the third most populous city in the United States, which is also home to the world’s second busiest airport, achieve this kind of status? By mixing the right ingredients with a positive passenger experience to serve up a recipe for success, says Dunn.

Build a Bailiwick

There was a time when RFD struggled; when individuals in outlying areas knew immediately that Chicago had two airports in O’Hare and Midway, but didn’t realize Rockford also had one. Those in the know were naysayers who didn’t believe Rockford could achieve status as a notable passenger airport within the State of Illinois.

But Bob O’Brien, the airport director during the time when RFD lost its passenger service from 2001-2003, believed differently. “He said ‘RFD can and should be a passenger airport.’ It has the population base around it to support passenger service,” says Dunn.

To do this the airport’s model had to change. RFD, situated on 3,000 acres on the city’s south side, originally served as a commuter airport, flying 200,000 passengers a year on 20-seat airplanes. However, that model proved expensive, inefficient and not sustainable in the long-term.

“You can get in a car and drive to O’Hare in less than 1 ½ hours,” Dunn explains. “To drive here, hop on a plane to get to O’Hare or Midway, was not practical.”

When RFD restored passenger service in 2004, officials adopted an entirely different model—that of leisure destination airport. They arrived at that decision after first deciding nonstop, direct service was the way to go, and experimenting with flying hubs on United Airlines to Denver and on Northwest Airlines to Detroit.

“We quickly learned we are too close to O’Hare for that kind of operation,” Dunn says. “We lack the flight frequency to make it attractive to business travelers, who would rather drive into O’Hare because they have the security of knowing that if they miss their first flight, there will be five others for them to catch.”

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