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

Later airport officials decided that becoming a destination/leisure travel airport made more sense. “Today, 85 to 90 percent of our passengers are leisure travelers,” he says. “It’s the perfect niche for us. That’s not to say it’s going to be our model forever, but it’s the model we operate right now and it is very successful.”

The airport subscribes to another belief that has made it a popular choice for some 210,000+ passengers every year. “Our philosophy is that your vacation should start as soon as you arrive at the airport,” Dunn says.

Ask a regular RFD traveler why they choose this airport over larger ones with more destinations and they will likely tell you three things: They come to Rockford for the parking (it’s free and readily available, with a shuttle that transports them directly to the terminal); the friendliness of the airport (here, volunteers grab your bags at the door, hoist them onto luggage racks and shuttle them to the ticket counter for you); and the ability to move quickly through the airport (it takes just minutes to maneuver through security to the gate where you can relax and enjoy the trip).

The airport’s staunch reputation for excellent customer service has attracted passengers like Oprah Winfrey, who used RFD to launch and return five full charter flights carrying a team of more than 1,600 employees for a company trip to Spain; Vice President Joe Biden, who used the airport during the 2012 presidential campaign; the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose aircraft made a planned fueling stop at RFD; and the entire European Ryder Cup team.

Grapple with Growing Pains

When an airport grows by 10+ percent a year, it’s sure to experience its share of growing pains, and RFD is no exception. Its terminal, built 25 years ago, has been remodeled and expanded several times between 2004 and 2009. But with RFD hitting its record number of passengers—ever—in March of this year, it’s become apparent that it’s time for a terminal revamp.

Projections indicate RFD may hit 242,000 passengers in 2013, easily surpassing its 2007 record when 215,000 passengers moved through its gates. Rapid growth has led to congestion at ticket counters, security checkpoints, concessions and baggage claim, creating a pressing need for the proposed $37 million terminal expansion, says Dunn. The airport already hired Rockford architect Jeff Flemming and Madison-based Mead & Hunt to review its options, and has met with the FAA and Sen. Dick Durbin about improving the terminal. They expect to break ground as early as spring 2014.

“We’re talking about a modest terminal expansion, however, not a Taj Mahal,” says Dunn. “Most leisure carriers operate under a low-cost model and are not willing to pay for fancy bricks and mortar or artwork. They want an efficient terminal their passengers can move through comfortably. That’s the way we will approach any kind of expansion. We are committed to living with and accepting our carrier’s model.”

Parking issues also arise when passenger traffic escalates; a fact Rockford has already addressed. Its 1,477 parking spots will grow by 180 when its new parking lot is complete. And because the State of Illinois does not support vertical parking, the airport expanded free shuttle service to its outlying lots.

Dig Into Diversions

If you build it, they will come. And in this case the “build” refers to relationships and the “they” represents the airlines. RFD’s work in this area has led to it becoming the diversion airport of choice for 34 airlines operating at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD).


“This airport was not well known in the Chicago area until we set about making it well known,” says Kenneth Ryan, RFD director of business development and cargo. In fact, ORD flights were traditionally diverted to Toronto, Detroit or Minneapolis. The RFD team built awareness by singing the airport’s praises to operations managers at O’Hare.

“We have our own airspace, separate from O’Hare, which makes it easy for flights to get in and out. We have FIS here. We are only 58 nautical miles from O’Hare,” Ryan says. “All of this makes it a very efficient airport.”

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