Daley cites security in closing of Meigs
Pilots' group blasts overnight demolition of runway
Tribune staff reports
Published March 31, 2003, 1:34 PM CST
Saying he acted out of concern for public safety and desire to spare citizens
"months and maybe years" of contentious debate, Mayor Richard Daley today
defended his decision to close Meigs Field and have its runway torn up in the
dark of night.
"We have done this to protect the millions of people who live, work and visit
downtown Chicago in these very uncertain times," Daley said at a City Hall news
conference after construction equipment early this morning put Meigs out of
"The safety of the entire city has to take precedence over the wishes of a
handful of private pilots and business people," the mayor said.
But Daley, who has long sought to close Meigs and replace it with a park and
nature preserve, said the city had received no specific threat about a possible
terrorist attack involving a private aircraft.
About 11 p.m. Sunday, several backhoes, large trucks carrying floodlights,
generators and other equipment arrived at the airport and started working on the
north-to-south runway. Chicago police barred access to the field for anyone
At dawn, the view from atop the Adler Planetarium showed a series of large,
X-shaped carvings in the concrete runway's center. Large, illuminated "X" signs
marked either end of the runway. The action came without public notice.
Asked why the city took the action without warning, Daley said: "To do this any
other way would have been needlessly contentious and jeopardized public safety
and prolonged concerns and anxiety among Chicagoans for months and maybe years."
The city has operated Meigs under a month-to-month lease with the Chicago Park
District. The park district has terminated the lease, so the city had no choice
but to close the airport, city officials said.
Daley said the March 22 federal implementation of a no-fly zone over the city
was "simply not enough" to ensure the safety of the public.
That rule prohibited small aircraft from flying within 3,000 feet of the ground
over downtown and much of the North Side, but allowed continued access to Meigs.
But Daley complained that a temporary flight restriction could be rescinded at
"More important, it does not address the problem that occurs every day as
aircraft approach Meigs Field, with a few hundred yards and only a few seconds'
flight time from out tallest buildings."
The mayor also expressed concern for the safety of "hundreds of thousands of
people" at city festivals, museums and beaches within range of planes at Meigs.
"With a sudden turn, they can cause a terrible tragedy downtown or in our
Daley promised that, if the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't let owners
of 16 planes stranded at Meigs use a still-intact taxiway for takeoff, the city
will reimburse them for removal of their craft by other means.
Steve Whitney, former president of Friends of Meigs Field, criticized the city's
use of national security as justification for closing the airport.
Whitney said medical and air-sea rescue aircraft use Meigs, which he contended
could also be used by emergency aircraft following a downtown disaster.
"It makes absolutely no sense from any standpoint, particularly for homeland
security, to close Meigs Field," Whitney said.
At a City Hall press conference after Daley spoke, Whitney described the mayor's
action as "a land grab" and "an abuse of power." He said that his organization
would study possible legal action.
"We are absolutely shocked and dismayed," said Phil Boyer, president of the
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, another organization that has fought
"Mayor Daley has no honor and his word has no value," Boyer said. "The sneaky
way he did this shows that he knows it was wrong."
But Boyer and an FAA spokesman conceded that the city appeared to have the legal
right to close Meigs.
"The city can do this because Meigs is an unobligated airport," said the FAA's
Tony Molinaro. About three years ago, Chicago repaid federal grant funds that
had been used to improve Meigs, he said.
The closure did not violate FAA regulations, and the city had the authority to
issue a formal Notice to Airmen notifying pilots of the closed runway, Molinaro
said. An official with the Chicago Department of Aviation said the notice was
issued at 3:02 a.m.
"We at the FAA were concerned to learn this morning of the decision to close
Meigs Field, and we have heard already from members of the general aviation
community, and we share their concern," Molinaro said.
"We feel that removing any centrally located airport such as Meigs from the
national airspace system only diminishes capacity and puts added pressure on
O'Hare and Midway airports.''
Last year, Meigs handled 32,000 takeoffs and landings.
Separately, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich said the governor also was
not told of Daley's plans, but supported the mayor's decision to close Meigs as
a matter of public safety.
Daley originally intended to close the airport in February 2002 and turn it into
a park and nature preserve, but he held off doing so to win then-Gov. George
Ryan's support for federal legislation backing the $6.6 billion expansion of
O'Hare International Airport.
Under terms of a deal reached with Ryan in December 2001, Daley agreed to keep
the lakefront airport open until Jan. 1, 2026, although Meigs could have been
closed anytime after Jan. 1, 2006, by a vote of the General Assembly.
The deal was supposed to have been solidified in federal legislation endorsing
the O'Hare expansion.
But U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, earlier this month declared the
federal bill dead because of opposition from his Republican counterpart, U.S.
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
Asked about that deal at today's news conference, Daley replied, "There is no
"The agreement is not in existence. There's no federal legislation," Daley said.
Tribune staff reporters Gary Washburn, Jon Hilkevitch, John Chase and Casey
Bukro and CLTV and WGN-Ch. 9 contributed to this story.