Business Travel Takes Off at Region Airports

March 6, 2006
Airport and charter operators say a desire to avoid the hassles and delays that came with increased airport security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks have businesses searching for more efficient ways to travel.

Mar. 5--For John Bowman, owner of a thriving graphics display business in Munster, the Lansing Municipal Airport next door is far from a nuisance.

"The reason we bought this property in this business park in the first place was because of the airport, and that was in the 1980s," Bowman said. "We would not have put the business here if not for the airport."

Bowman logs about 100,000 miles per year flying his own six-passenger Cessna twin-engine plane out of the airport, calling on clients such as Ford Motor Co. and his own network of 110 dealers.

In a recent single week, he set the Cessna 310R down in Tupelo, Miss.; Wichita, Kan.; and Ann Arbor, Mich.

Trips like that, with no airport terminal waits in between, have been a key ingredient in growing Bowman Displays from 12 employees two decades ago to 60 today, according to the entrepreneur.

"For me, it's like the difference between owning an automobile and calling a taxi," Bowman said. "And it's a darn site better than taking a bus."

Bowman was a pioneer in what has become a movement transforming small region airports, once used mainly for recreational flying, into major business travel centers.

Airport and charter operators say a desire to avoid the hassles and delays that came with increased airport security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks have businesses searching for more efficient ways to travel.

Total takeoffs and landings have only seen moderate increases at local airports over the last few years. But what is called corporate or business travel is up dramatically.

At Gary/Chicago International Airport, air charters have more than doubled, with 1,577 charter flights coming through the airport in 2005, compared to 762 five years before, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics.

And that does not count the flights logged by Boeing Corp. and NiSource Inc., two Fortune 500 companies that base their corporate fleets there. And it does not count all the smaller businesses that own their own planes.

The Gary Jet Center, the airport's fixed-base charter operator, has seen a 20 percent to 25 percent increase in business the last two years, according to Cynthia Polk, Gary Jet Center customer service manager. The closure of Meigs Field in downtown Chicago two years accounted for some of that increase.

The FAA does not have charter figures available for smaller airports like Lansing Municipal. But airport operators and businesses operating charters out of the region's smaller airports report dramatic increases in business.

"I was here when it was an exciting day when one jet landed at Lansing," said airport manager Bob Malkas, who has overseen the airport for more than 20 years. "Now we have eight of them based here."

Porter County Municipal Airport, in Valparaiso, soon will have a world-class hangar for a world-class company. Whiteco Industries, the company founded and still run by Crown Point billionaire Dean White, is building an 18,000-square-foot hangar there.

It will house the company's Dassault Falcon 900 and two other jets. The Falcon 900 is a transcontinental business jet with a range of 5,000 miles.

"On the corporate side, business jets allow our businesses here to do business both domestically and globally," airport director Kyle Kuebler said.

The Chicago Business Air Center, which provides business charters and aircraft services at Lansing Municipal, recently doubled its charter fleet by adding four Cessna Citation III business jets.

The medium-size business jet seats up to nine passengers. It sells for $3.5 to $4 million. Cruising speed is 540 mph and it has a range of 2,530 miles.

Six years ago, the Chicago Business Air Center employed two pilots at Lansing, according to administrator Laura Rock. Today it has 14 pilots.

Malkas stresses the airport costs local taxpayers nothing, but pumps millions of dollars into the local economy.

A 2000 Illinois Department of Transportation study reported the Lansing airport had a $28.7 million economic impact on the area. Just over $5 million was generated at the airport itself from fuel taxes, payroll and capital expenditures made by airport businesses and airport users.

It also doesn't hurt that executives from major companies are getting a quick look at the community after they land and head off to Chicago's Loop or other locations. Kohler Corp., Oakwood Homes Corp., and PGA Tour Golf Course Properties Inc. have all flown into Lansing in the last year.

And it's not just the company's top brass that flies private.

Bowman takes technicians, designers and trouble-shooters on his plane. Menards building supply managers and department heads fly out of the Gary airport on the corporate plane almost daily to train at Menards' Eau Claire, Wis., headquarters.

"That's the whole purpose; we're not just here to serve the aviation community," Malkas said last week while driving the airport's taxi-ways. "It's an economic development tool."

At the Gary Jet Center, Polk can spin of a long list of businesses that benefit from charter and other business flyers.

There are the taxis, limo services and rental cars that take flyers where they have to go. Caterers such as Air Chef deliver meals. The Jet Center has negotiated rates for pilots at area hotels. And pilots can use Gator's Athletic Club, in Highland, to work out between flights.

The Jet Center itself employs 40 people, including nine pilots.

The most recent Aviation Association of Indiana study estimated all operations at the Gary airport had a $133 million overall impact on the local economy.

One afternoon last week, crews were moving business jets and turbo props in and out of the Gary Jet Center hangar. A University of Chicago Hospitals medevac helicopter had just come in for fuel, and a Menards corporate jet was dropping off local store managers.

"After 9/11, people still wanted to do business," Polk said. "But they didn't want to have to deal with the airlines and all the hassles at airports. So they have turned to general aviation to get business done."