A Culture Change At Dupage

Dec. 30, 2011
After losing $2 million a year less than a decade ago, the airport now produces an annual operating profit and is debt-free

DuPage Airport is owned and operated by the DuPage Airport Authority, a nine-member, appointed board granted independent authority in 1982. Through the authority the airport provides facilities for business, corporate, and general aviation users in DuPage County and the western Chicago region.

The airport, located approximately 35 miles west of downtown Chicago, is situated in one of the Chicago region’s most rapidly developing suburban areas and is the third busiest airport in Illinois after O’Hare International and Midway airports. The airport accommodates the business and corporate aviation markets and is home to numerous corporate flight departments. 

Leadership and Management Changes

Over the past decade, the DuPage Airport Authority has reshaped the airport and its culture from political patronage to political independence and profitability. For years, airport operations were financed by the local community – supported by a property tax levying up to $18 million from taxpayers each year, while grappling with bond debt that reached $23 million.

The move toward profitability and independence began in 2002 with a series of actions instituted by a new independent and entrepreneurially minded airport board. One of those actions was the 2004 hiring of a new executive director, David Bird, who was then an assistant director at the Colorado Springs Airport and brought 20 years of aviation management experience to the organization. 

The combination of a board that was motivated to change the ‘business as usual’ climate and a seasoned aviation professional as executive director began the process of changing almost every aspect of the way the airport operates. 

Airport staffing was cut by 15 percent; all policies and procedures were rewritten to ensure accountability and transparency; the authority's tax levy was reduced to $6 million annually; and the airport has abated $500,000 in each of the last two years. 

The $23 million in debt has been erased. After losing $2 million a year less than a decade ago, the airport now produces an annual operating profit and is debt-free. 

DuPage was recently celebrated as “a model for the nation” by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood during a June 9 visit, and also won praise from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for using business principles to upgrade services, pay off all debts, and cut the public subsidy.

Moreover, the authority endeavors to provide a positive economic impact to DuPage County and surrounding communities and has aggressively pursued opportunities for revenue enhancement from both aviation and non-aviation sources to ensure the airport remains fiscally sound. Some of these actions include:

-          development of the DuPage Business Center, a 600-acre business park located adjacent to the airport;

-          continued development of hangar facilities for the corporate and charter users; and

-          operation of Prairie Landing Golf Course, recently voted as the top public course in Chicago’s western suburbs.

Development Background

The airport’s first hangars and runways were developed by the U.S. Navy in 1941 to train pilots for the war effort, and the airfield was ultimately sold to DuPage County after the war. In the early 1980’s, the authority, FAA, and the Illinois Department of Transportation Division of Aeronautics (IDOT-DOA) initiated an extensive development plan to position the airport to better serve the emerging demand for business aviation in the Chicago region and provide additional capacity relief to O’Hare. 

These efforts resulted in an airport development program that included extensive land acquisition and the construction of two new parallel runways, an architecturally towering 52,000-square foot general aviation terminal complex (the DuPage Flight Center), and additional support infrastructure.

Overall development since the 1980’s has followed the recommendations of the initial plan, including the preservation of aviation, commercial, and reserve land uses, and the authority has sponsored various improvements to maintain infrastructure and ensure financial stability. 

However, more than 20 years had passed since the last comprehensive development plan was prepared, and because of the ample land owned by the authority — much of it undeveloped — there was a need to prepare an updated development plan as well as consider potential new market opportunities.

2010 Master Plan

In early 2010, the authority completed a comprehensive master plan that establishes a long-range plan to maximize the airport’s potential in the context of the Chicago region’s corporate and other general aviation needs. The plan identifies the land that should be preserved for future aviation and non-aviation development, and prioritizes investments in a comprehensive financial plan recognizing the authority’s financial goals and competing needs for federal and state funds.

Primary projects and recommendations include:

-          decommissioning the airport’s original runway 15/33 and preserving approximately 70 acres in the northeast quadrant for future non-aviation uses;

-          strengthening and widening primary runway 2L/20R and associated taxiways;

-          extending runway 2R-20L and constructing a full-length parallel taxiway;

-          implementing aviation infrastructure and utilities on a 45-acre site in the southeast quadrant of the airport to facilitate general aviation and commercial aviation maintenance/repair/overhaul-type development; and

-          developing aviation infrastructure adjacent to the DuPage Flight Center to support continued corporate aviation expansions.

In general, the overall $145 million, 20-year plan represents a logical “next step” to the airport’s long-term development. The area designated for continued corporate aviation expansion also provides easy access to the primary airfield infrastructure used by corporate aircraft — primarily runway 2L/20R.

The new general aviation facilities to be developed on the east side airport, which include hangars, aprons, access roadways, vehicular parking, and various general aviation-related businesses (e.g. self-service fueling or maintenance providers), are intended to replace the original 50-60 year old facilities on the airport’s northeast quadrant. 

Approximately 125 acres of on-airport land were identified for future non-aviation development (70 acres in the northeast quadrant are currently in direct aviation use, while 53 acres elsewhere on property are undeveloped).

Pursuing non-aviation development on land not needed for future airport facilities would enable the authority to supplement its existing aviation-based revenue stream to help fund airport capital improvements and operations.  

About the Author

Eric Bernhardt | Director