Rockford Airport Gets New Name From Closeness to Chicago

Nov. 27--Bob O'Brien has taken some grief for the decision to rename the airport in Rockford.

It became the Chicago/Rockford International Airport this month, although the airport is about 90 miles from downtown Chicago. Milwaukee and South Bend, Ind., are similar distances from the city, but neither of the public airports in those cities has seen a need to add Chicago to their name.

But Rockford is close enough to the far northwest Chicago suburbs that many of its potential customers identify with it, said O'Brien, executive director of the airport. Rockford also is trying to prove it can support daily service by major carriers, even if O'Hare International Airport is within driving distance.

"This community has always been told by the airline industry and politicians with an interest in Peotone that, 'You can't compete. You're too close to O'Hare,'" O'Brien said. "We want to prove the viability of the airport."

He calls the name switch--from Greater Rockford Airport--a reflection of changes in marketing and attitude. It is also the outgrowth of an effort at promoting the airport that enabled Rockford to land what many said was impossible: twice-daily service by major airlines. Two of them, in fact. United Airlines and Northwest Airlines offer flights out of Rockford.

Smaller city airports in the shadow of major metropolises often cannot attract daily commercial service because they cannot compete with the price and schedule airlines offer at larger airports.

Rockford's success at attracting United and Northwest came after an intense effort to demonstrate there is sufficient demand in the local market, O'Brien said. Now, the airport must prove it can support those carriers.

Northwest has been flying the route since May and called the first months of its Rockford service disappointing. United does not launch service until next year.Rockford went to major carriers touting its success with smaller players, such as Hooters Air and TransMeridian Airlines. Then it offered financial guarantees, worth more than $2.5 million each for United and Northwest.

"The new name of the game for communities that really, truly feel they are underserved, and who feel they have the strength of a good airport, is put your money where your mouth is," O'Brien said.

It is a growing trend nationally, said airline analyst Robert Mann.

"The idea is to take the economic risk away from the airline and transfer it to the people who want to use it," he said. "There's an argument for it, because scheduled airline service is an economic development tool."

Northwest and United serve their routes with jets seating about 50 flown by their regional partners. Northwest goes to its largest hub, Detroit. United serves Denver, where it has a major hub.

Rockford's success at offering incentives is good strategy, said Aaron Gellman, a professor of at Northwestern University's Transportation Center.

"The people at Rockford have played their hand very nicely," Gellman said. "This is the way it works these days--airports offering a cushion, a subsidy, to bring carriers in. That's the wave of the future."

O'Brien came to Rockford in 2002 after seven years running Capital Airport in Springfield. Ten months before his arrival, Rockford had lost its last commuter airline when Northwest discontinued service.

The airport regained a commercial carrier in 2003 when TransMeridian began twice-weekly flights to Las Vegas. Bringing in the airline took some convincing, O'Brien said.

"Our conversation with [TransMeridian ] drilled down to, 'How much do you believe in the market,'" he said. "We said we'll go out and raise $250,000 in 20 days and match it [with money from the airport board]."

If the goal was met, the money would be used for marketing the flights. Donations began coming in, many for $10 from people who had no plans to fly TransMeridian, but who believed the community needed commercial service, O'Brien said. TransMeridian began service to Las Vegas in 2003 and later added flights to Orlando. The airline stopped flying in September after the company announced plans to liquidate.

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.

"If it creates millions of dollars in economic impact, if it creates jobs and enhances the quality of life here, what do you care what we call it for marketing purposes," he said. "You're still going to say I'm going to the Rockford airport."

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