Profile compiled by Mark Klein
CHICAGO – When the world’s biggest golf event rolls into Chicagoland in September – pro golfers, corporate sponsors, journalists and spectators pouring in from across the globe – DuPage Flight Center (KDPA) will be swinging for the pins with a full set of clubs.
With its 24-hour FAA control tower, 24-hour United States Customs, 24-hour firefighting and rescue service, 24-hour staffed line service, and the second longest runway in Chicagoland, DuPage Flight Center has the chops to handle the demands of what many consider to be golf’s most prestigious event, the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, just 15 miles away.
The hotly contested 85-year-old event is held every two years for international bragging rights to a gold cup that pits an elite team of U.S. golfers against a European counterpart.
“We’re expecting a tremendous amount of traffic to be generated by the event,” explains David Bird, Executive Director of DuPage Airport Authority. “We think we are going to capture the majority of it here. We are the closest airport to Medinah, but we also have the most capacity and the largest array of critical services of any general aviation airport in the region.”
Indeed. One of DuPage’s four runways is second only to O’Hare in length. Two runways provide ILS approaches. And with a one-million-square-foot apron, the Phillips 66® Aviation fixed base operator has the most ramp capacity of any general aviation field in the region.
Add in a multimillion-dollar renovation scheduled to be ready in time for the Cup, and you have an FBO ready for tee-off.
“It’s a huge corporate event; the prediction is that it could be the largest-grossing event in golf’s history,” Bird says. “There are 76 corporate hospitality tents alone. We are expecting lots of domestic traffic from these corporations that have a presence at the event, in addition to several European flights.
“We don’t want there to be much difference between walking into a high-end hotel and DuPage Flight Center, from the time they touch the pavement to the time they go wheels up,” explains Bird.
A testament to tenaciousness
When asked about the FBO’s commitment to service, Bird points out that DuPage Flight Center has not had a snow closure in 30 years. When the third highest snowfall in Chicago history brought the town to its knees in 2011, DuPage was open, runways cleared, planes de-iced and flight operations running.
“We had our entire crew out here in ungodly conditions and we resumed operations within 30 minutes of the weather lifting,” Bird says. “There was essentially no downtime, despite contending with 12-foot snowdrifts around the flight center. We were able to keep our customers warm, comfortable and fed before they departed.”
DuPage is an FBO owned by a government agency, in this case, the DuPage Airport Authority. But what’s unique about DuPage Flight Center is that no tax money is used to subsidize the FBO operation. It is self-sustaining.
“We feel we’re one of a kind,” says Bird. “It’s a credit to our managers that people don’t distinguish our employees from private sector ones. Our competition is private sector and we recognize it. We take very much a private-sector approach and we stress trying to give the best customer service possible.”
Bird believes that being both the airport and FBO gives DuPage more control over its product.
“We have a seamless operation because we’re in charge of everything,” says Bird. “We all are cohesive in taking care of the customers and getting them in and out of our airport. One call to one executive staff member, and it gets done.”
Remodeling the experience
The first thing most visitors notice when they fly into DuPage is the large traffic control tower because it stands like a sentinel smack next to a 54,000 square-foot flight center. DuPage pays for 24/7 air traffic control, the only reliever in Illinois to do so.
Next door, the flight center – large enough to host meetings and banquets for up to 200 people – is getting $3.1 million worth of renovations and remodeling. The idea, says Bird, is to make customer service faster, more efficient.
“When we started contemplating remodeling and renovations it was all geared around what we can do to enhance the customer experience at DuPage,” Bird explains. “We have set the bar high here. When people get off their aircraft and walk into the flight center, they will be walking into a space that really cares about them as people – and provides all the services they may want or need.”
For passengers and pilots flying into DuPage, that includes a restaurant with gourmet catering, Starbucks coffee, onsite rental and crew cars, private sleeping quarters, a workout room with lockers, fresh towels and showers, kitchen facilities, and full concierge support for over 60 nearby dining, hotel, shopping and event options. The FBO does not charge landing fees, and waives ramp fees with a minimum fuel purchase.
Part of the customer experience effort at DuPage Flight Center means promoting WingPoints® Rewards, the Phillips 66 Aviation program that rewards repeat fuel purchases with points for gift and debit cards. With some 90 corporate aircraft based at DuPage and 100,000 square feet of hangar space, rewarding loyalty is good for business, says Bird.
“We promote them all the time at the counter,” says Bird. “Everybody gets WingPoints here no matter what, even discounted fuel customers like fractional jets.”
Multimillion dollar extension
A $3.5 million project is extending one runway by 1,345 feet. Bird says it will improve operational flexibility and safety redundancy. The project – slated for completion prior to the Ryder Cup – is 100 percent locally funded.
“There may not be another general aviation airport in the country that is taking on a project like this on a 100% local basis,” Bird says proudly. “Extending the runway will give us opportunities to completely close our primary runway for maintenance and shift all traffic to a parallel runway without compromising the operational capacity of the airport.”
Weeks after the golf pros, fans and corporate sponsors depart Chicagoland, DuPage will prepare for winter – and conditions that can test the best airport operations. When the snow does hit, drift-building winds blasting off Lake Michigan, DuPage hits back with a new aircraft de-icing truck capable of reaching 35 feet up, and snow- removal equipment that keeps the runway, taxiway and ramp open.
“We get them in and out of here, and there are no delays,” says Bird. “We’re trying to do everything we can to negate the impact of winter weather.”
Whatever DuPage is doing – the 24/7 services, remodeling its terminal, extending a runway, keeping winter at bay – it’s working. A recent economic study found the airport will directly and indirectly fuel the local economy with $117 million and create nearly 1,000 jobs in 2012.
It’s working despite a challenging aviation economy. It’s working, says Bird, because the DuPage staff has one goal: create a smooth, stress-free experience for their customers, whether through attentive service, capable equipment or the airport’s 24/7 offerings.
“When the biggest event in golf touches down here, we’ll be ready,” says Bird. “Huge events like the Cup give us a chance to test our mettle.”