A plan to close a runway at Chicago Executive Airport is economically driven and could pose a danger for single-engine planes, some pilots say.
"It's apparent to us, the small-airplane owners, they don't really want us here," said Jim Loerzel, a pilot based at the former Palwaukee Municipal Airport in Wheeling. "All the improvements are geared toward corporate aircraft."
Last week, the airport board recommended closing Runway 6/24, the shortest of the airport's three runways, citing Federal Aviation Administration concerns about a Montessori school being built near the runway and worries about its 50-foot width.
This week, Wheeling trustees asked for more time to consider the shutdown proposal and to meet with aldermen from Prospect Heights, which co-owns the airport.
"We have the cart before the horse here," said Kenneth Brady, a Wheeling trustee.
Pilots told trustees Monday that the runway should be kept open for safety. Richard Steinbrecher urged the Village Board not to shut it down because that would push pilots of small single-engine planes onto the two other runways, sometimes in dangerous crosswinds.
"Most small planes cannot deal with strong crosswinds," Steinbrecher said.
Loerzel said officials should consider limiting use of the runway to smaller planes, which would reduce the size of the runway protection zone mandated by the FAA; swapping other airport property for the school site; or shortening the runway.
The FAA told airport officials that if the school is built as planned, future grants from the agency could be in jeopardy.
The Chicago Executive scenario is familiar to pilots at DuPage Airport in West Chicago.
"It's always an issue because airports get the majority of their income from corporate customers buying fuel for business travel," said Ron Strickland, who flies a Cessna out of DuPage and is the airport liaison for the DuPage Pilots Association.
Chicago Executive manager Dennis Rouleau said about 20 percent of the single-engine aircraft pilots use Runway 6/24 for takeoff and about 10 percent use it for landings. He said the runway is operated under an FAA waiver because it doesn't meet standards, and one flight school restricts use of the runway by students.
"Closing a runway is an important decision, and [Wheeling officials] need to feel comfortable with that," Rouleau said.
Wheeling and Prospect Heights have operated the airport for about 20 years. Operations are handled by an airport manager and staff, with a board providing oversight. For about 18 years, that guidance came from an advisory commission.
In 2005 the towns established the current seven-member airport board. Representatives include the town managers and two community members from each town. A chairman is chosen by town leaders. Kevin Dohm, a United Airlines pilot, is chairman.
Dohm favors closing the runway. "Wheeling's ill-advised delay is flying in the face of safety," he said.
Wheeling issued a permit for the school at the southeast corner of Capitol and South Drives.
Last fall, the FAA decided that although the building was not in the protection zone, putting a school there was an incompatible use of the land. School officials said only a corner of the parking lot would be in the zone.
Airport board members decided that closing the runway was an expedient way to eliminate the protection zone concerns and potential safety hazards. An earlier offer to swap an airport property was rejected because of anticipated costs of utilities and improvements.
Ken Keifer, president of the DuPage pilots group, said that several years ago pilots successfully fought a move to close a runway at the West Chicago airport, but Strickland said the situation in Wheeling may be a little different.
"The fact they changed the name to Chicago Executive kind of shows you their focus," Strickland said.
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