But its success in Rockford brought in others, including Hooters Air in February. Tour operators followed with charter flights to vacation spots. Allegiant Air flies to Las Vegas and will add service to Orlando in December.
Others were not given the same size financial incentives that Northwest and United received, because such offers have to be made when the time is right, O'Brien said.
Rockford used a combination of federal and local money to give Northwest a $2.8 million revenue guarantee and United a $2.5 million deal. The airport provides some money for marketing and promotion, but only has to make large payments to the airlines if they are not profitable.
"It costs airlines a lot of money to come in and give a community a try," O'Brien said. "We've basically said as you get started, if revenues don't equal projections, we'll offset the shortfall up to a certain dollar amount."
Rockford has about 150,000 residents, but there are 2.5 million people within an hour's drive of the airport.
"It's not rocket science to figure out if we bring a valued product ... there will be a sufficient number of consumers who will opt to take the product here versus the challenge of the traffic, the high cost of parking at O'Hare and the perceived frustration of delays and cancellations," he said.
Airports in Rockford, Gary and other cities in the shadow of major metropolises have traditionally had difficulty attracting mainline service. Some, like Manchester, N.H., have found a niche by attracting discount carriers, such as Southwest Airlines.
In Chicago, Midway Airport has cornered much of that market, with Southwest, ATA Airlines and AirTran Airways.
Out of the gate, Northwest isn't seeing the level of revenue expected.
"Our Rockford service is not meeting our expectations," a spokesman said about revenue since May.
O'Brien blamed Northwest's pricing for the problem. Fares for customers going only to Detroit and not continuing on to another city often are more expensive than similar flights out of O'Hare, he said.
As a result, one of the elements Rockford insisted on in its agreement with United was that the fares to Denver be competitive with the rate to the same destination from O'Hare.
"It's got to be competitive," O'Brien said.
The decision to change the name still brings complaints from some in the community, but it was done with a practical thought, O'Brien said. For a time, the airport had marketed itself as the Northwest Chicagoland International Airport. But the recent change accomplishes something that name would not do, O'Brien said.
When travelers in Denver are looking at the computer screens of arrivals and departures in Denver or Detroit, they're going to see the listings for Chicago-Midway and Chicago-O'Hare, followed by Chicago-Rockford. There is a value in that association, he said.
The change is unlikely to result in people getting off a plane in Rockford and wondering where the Wrigley Building and Navy Pier are. Entering the word "Chicago" at a site such as Orbitz will only bring up options for O'Hare and Midway, not Rockford.
"You wouldn't choose us unless you chose us on purpose," O'Brien said.
When he hears from those angry over the airport's new name, O'Brien said he explains there was a sound financial reason for the move.
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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...
Industry officials offered up their take on where the airlines are headed while airport executives shared lessons learned at the 10th Annual National Air Service Conference