Rockford Gets It Right

May 13, 2013
All the right ingredients – from equipment to destinations to prices and service—mix up a recipe for success at Chicago’s “third” airport


“I subscribe to the belief that if you have the right equipment, go to the right destinations, at the right time, for the right price, you will fill airplanes."

Mike Dunn, director, Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD)

“We tell airlines, ‘If you give us seats, we can fill them.’ ”

Mike Dunn, director, Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD)

 “I subscribe to the belief that if you have the right equipment, go to the right destinations, at the right time, for the right price, you will fill airplanes,” says Mike Dunn, director at Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD).

And statistics from RFD’s recent past offer irrefutable evidence that Dunn’s philosophy is more fact than fiction.

In 2012, RFD set its second highest passenger traffic record, with a 10 percent increase in traffic. Dunn predicts double-digit growth this year too, noting the airport is tracking to be at least 15 percent over 2012 numbers by the close of 2013.

The airport also posts strong load factor numbers. In fact, a Sixel Consulting Group study released in mid-2012 reported RFD had the highest load factor among airports in the Great Lakes region--with the majority of its flights at least 89 percent full. “We tell airlines, ‘If you give us seats, we can fill them,’ ” says Dunn. “Our high load factor is an important figure that proves this statement and demonstrates that our routes and business model are sustainable for airlines.”

The number of destinations RFD serves also continues to soar, with two coming onboard in the first two months of 2013 and more expected before year’s end. In January the airport launched nonstop service to Montego Bay, Jamaica, via Apple Vacations, and in February added year-long service to Fort Myers, Fla., via Allegiant Airlines.

“We have Allegiant going to five destinations; Frontier going to one; and Apple going to three,” Dunn says. “They are all great locations (Jamaica, Fort Meyers, Cancun, Denver, Punta Cana, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix and Tampa Bay). They are price friendly carriers. And they are using jets and providing nonstop service.”

How does an airport nestled in a midsized, Midwestern city lying just 65 miles away from the third most populous city in the United States, which is also home to the world’s second busiest airport, achieve this kind of status? By mixing the right ingredients with a positive passenger experience to serve up a recipe for success, says Dunn.

Build a Bailiwick

There was a time when RFD struggled; when individuals in outlying areas knew immediately that Chicago had two airports in O’Hare and Midway, but didn’t realize Rockford also had one. Those in the know were naysayers who didn’t believe Rockford could achieve status as a notable passenger airport within the State of Illinois.

But Bob O’Brien, the airport director during the time when RFD lost its passenger service from 2001-2003, believed differently. “He said ‘RFD can and should be a passenger airport.’ It has the population base around it to support passenger service,” says Dunn.

To do this the airport’s model had to change. RFD, situated on 3,000 acres on the city’s south side, originally served as a commuter airport, flying 200,000 passengers a year on 20-seat airplanes. However, that model proved expensive, inefficient nd not sustainable in the long-term.

“You can get in a car and drive to O’Hare in less than 1 ½ hours,” Dunn explains. “To drive here, hop on a plane to get to O’Hare or Midway, was not practical.”

When RFD restored passenger service in 2004, officials adopted an entirely different model—that of leisure destination airport. They arrived at that decision after first deciding nonstop, direct service was the way to go, and experimenting with flying hubs on United Airlines to Denver and on Northwest Airlines to Detroit.

“We quickly learned we are too close to O’Hare for that kind of operation,” Dunn says. “We lack the flight frequency to make it attractive to business travelers, who would rather drive into O’Hare because they have the security of knowing that if they miss their first flight, there will be five others for them to catch.”

After a bit of research, airport officials decided that becoming a destination/leisure travel airport made more sense. “Today, 85 to 90 percent of our passengers are leisure travelers,” he says. “It’s the perfect niche for us. That’s not to say it’s going to be our model forever, but it’s the model we operate right now and it is very successful.”

The airport subscribes to another belief that has made it a popular choice for some 210,000+ passengers every year. “Our philosophy is that your vacation should start as soon as you arrive at the airport,” Dunn says.

Ask a regular RFD traveler why they choose this airport over larger ones with more destinations and they will likely tell you three things: They come to Rockford for the parking (it’s free and readily available, with a shuttle that transports them directly to the terminal); the friendliness of the airport (here, volunteers grab your bags at the door, hoist them onto luggage racks and shuttle them to the ticket counter for you); and the ability to move quickly through the airport (it takes just minutes to manuever through security to the gate where you can relax and enjoy the trip).

The airport’s staunch reputation for excellent customer service has attracted passengers like Oprah Winfrey, who used RFD to launch and return five full charter flights carrying a team of more than 1,600 employees for a company trip to Spain; Vice President Joe Biden, who used the airport during the 2012 presidential campaign; the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose aircraft made a planned fueling stop at RFD; and the entire European Ryder Cup team.

Grapple with Growing Pains

When an airport grows by 10+ percent a year, it’s sure to experience its share of growing pains, and RFD is no exception. Its terminal, built 25 years ago, has been remodeled and expanded several times between 2004 and 2009. But with RFD hitting its record number of passengers—ever—in March of this year, it’s become apparent that it’s time for a terminal revamp. 

Projections indicate RFD may hit 242,000 passengers in 2013, easily surpassing its 2007 record when 215,000 passengers moved through the airport’s gates. Rapid growth has led to congestion at ticket counters, security checkpoints, concessions and baggage claim, creating a pressing need for the proposed $37 million terminal expansion, says Dunn. The airport already hired Rockford architect Jeff Flemming and Madison-based Mead & Hunt to review its options, and has met with the FAA and Sen. Dick Durbin about improving the terminal. They expect to break ground as early as spring 2014.

“We’re talking about a modest terminal expansion, however, not a Taj Mahal,” says Dunn. “Most leisure carriers operate under a low-cost model and are not willing to pay for fancy bricks and mortar or artwork. They want an efficient terminal their passengers can move through comfortably. That’s the way we will approach any kind of expansion. We are committed to living with and accepting our carrier’s model.”

Parking issues also arise when passenger traffic escalates; a fact Rockford already has addressed. Its 1,477 parking spots will grow by 180 when its new parking lot is complete. And because the State of Illinois does not support vertical parking, the airport expanded its free shuttle service to its outlying lots.

Dabble in Diversions

If you build it, they will come. And in this case the “build” refers to relationships and the “they” represents the airlines. RFD’s work in this area has led to it becoming the diversion airport of choice for 34 airlines operating at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD). 

“This airport was not well known in the Chicago area until we set about making it well known,” says Kenneth Ryan, RFD director of business development and cargo. In fact, ORD flights were traditionally diverted to Toronto, Detroit or Minneapolis.

The RFD team built awareness by singing the airport’s praises to operations managers at O’Hare. “We have our own airspace, separate from O’Hare, which makes it easy for flights to get in and out. We have FIS here. We are only 58 nautical miles from O’Hare,” he says. “All of this makes it a very efficient airport.”

And, if for some reason flights cannot get back to O’Hare, Rockford can put the passengers on buses and have them there in a little over an hour. “Airlines do not have to put them up in hotels or anything like that; it’s a tremendous advantage,” Ryan says.

Cull Cargo Business          

“In golf, it’s said that you drive for show and you putt for dough,” says Ryan, noting that’s similar to how this airport views its ties to passenger and cargo traffic.

“Passenger service is quality of life for our residents, our taxing authority, and our region, but cargo is where the dough is. That’s where our serious growth lies,” he says.

RFD officials aggressively target expanding cargo operations. To date, the airport is one of the 25th largest cargo operations in the United States and home to UPS’s second largest air operation in North America. It offers cargo clients a ramp-side, 72,000 square-foot international cargo center and its investments in customer service and infrastructure on the cargo side landed it the 2012 Air Cargo Excellence Award for a North American Airport from Air Cargo World News.

RFD got here by building relationships and driving home the message that the airport offers benefits others do not. “We have a 10,000 foot-long runway, there is not a military or civilian aircraft in the world that cannot land here. We have a Cat II ILS system, which only 25 percent of the airports in the world have. And we have 3,000 acres; 900 inside our fence and 2,100 around the airport available for development,” Dunn says.

According to Ryan, with its dedicated airspace and reasonable size, cargo operations can actually save money by using RFD. Aircraft can fly in without being vectored around the airport, and when they hit the ground the taxi times in and out are around 5-10 minutes. “A 747 burns 35 gallons of fuel in 10 minutes of taxiing,” Ryan adds. “Now if you save 10-15 minutes on your flight time that adds up. Landing fees are less here. Parking fees are less here. So an airline coming out of Asia might save $16,000 a flight. Multiply that number by a flight a day and you see significant savings.”

In recent years, RFD’s cargo increases have been marginal. However, the airport snagged a slight increase as other airports saw their cargo operations shrink. “There was a 1.7 percent reduction in cargo worldwide last year,” says Ryan. “But we had a .2 percent increase in cargo at a very difficult time.”

This summer RFD will resume work on a $24 million runway reconstruction. The project represents the airport’s first runway rehab since 1983, and will allow the airport to accommodate current and additional air cargo activity. “Our entrance and major access roads will also be rebuilt, helping us to further enhance our opportunities for business and cargo growth,” says Dunn.

From passenger growth to cargo changes to facility and airside improvements, RFD has it going on, and its efforts are paying off. The Illinois Department of Transportation ranked RFD as a top airport in its 2012 Aviation Economic Impact Study, finding that it generates $1 billion in economic activity annually and supports 5,384 jobs.

“This is just the beginning. As RFD grows, so will our impact,” says Dunn. “RFD has the infrastructure, relationships and momentum to really take off as Chicago’s third airport. I’m excited for what the future holds.”