By Jon Hilkevitch
The FAA is launching an investigation that may lead to fines against Chicago for not notifying authorities before closing Meigs Field last year, but the probe won't result in reopening the former lakefront airport, officials said Thursday.
Civil penalties of $1,100 a day, ranging from 2 to 90 days, could be imposed for the Daley administration's night raid March 30 that bulldozed large "X's" into the Meigs' runway, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro.
He said the investigation "sends a message to the city and any other airport sponsors that we do take a closing like this very seriously."
General aviation pilots have contended the shutdown violated federal rules mandating at least a 30-day notice of an airport's closing.
The FAA's office of chief counsel, responding to a request for the probe by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said "reasonable grounds exist to commence an informal investigation" by the agency's regional office.
The pilots association filed a complaint in April seeking FAA sanctions against the city. The FAA reviewed their request and notified the group in a Feb. 4 letter that an investigation would occur.
Molinaro said the investigation would focus on whether the timing of the Meigs closing violated federal rules. He said the FAA previously determined the city had the legal authority to shut down the airport, which was on part of a landfill called Northerly Island, that is owned by the Chicago Park District.
The pilots association contended Chicago violated federal law and aviation regulations by failing to provide adequate notice of the Meigs shutdown.
The FAA said Chicago sent a belated notification of the Meigs closing on March 31.
Federal aviation regulations require at least a 90-day notice, in most cases, to the FAA administrator before public airport operators can alter runways or close an airport. A warning of at least 30 days must be given in the event of an emergency or a national security concern if the airport has a charted instrument landing approach to help guide pilots to a safe landing, which Meigs did.
Mayor Richard Daley, who broke a 2001 agreement with then-Gov. George Ryan to keep Meigs open for up to 25 years in exchange for Ryan supporting expansion of O'Hare International Airport, said he demolished Meigs to protect the downtown from potential terrorist attacks launched by small aircraft using the airfield.
Meigs supporters said they hoped the FAA action would help draw attention to their proposal to reopen the airport in combination with a public nature park that Daley and his wife, Maggie, have long envisioned for Northerly Island.
"It's good there will be an investigation and the public will hear about it," said Rachel Goodstein, president of Friends of Meigs Field. She expressed regret, however, that the investigation would not include "a remedy for reopening the airport."
City Hall has ruled out the possibility of reopening Meigs.
A Daley spokeswoman did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.
After Meigs was closed, Congress raised the fine for an unannounced airport shutdown to up to $10,000 a day if at least 30 days' notice was not given.
Warren Morningstar, a spokesman for Aircraft Owners and Pilots
Association, said the FAA action "sends a message all over the country that if
you attempt to close an airport and do it without following the rules, there are
going to be consequences for disrupting the national airspace system."
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
BY SHAMUS TOOMEY Transportation Reporter
The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday it is investigating Mayor Daley's late-night raid on Meigs Field to see if federal rules were gouged along with the lakefront runway.
Even if found to be in violation, however, the city would not be forced to reopen the airport and could face fines as low as $2,200, FAA officials said.
The probe comes in response to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association filing a complaint that alleged the city was required to warn the FAA 90 days in advance of any airport closure.
The city didn't tell the FAA of the closure until March 31, 2003, the day after it was carried out, the FAA said.
At the time, Daley said terrorism concerns and the need to avoid a protracted legal battle spurred him to send heavy equipment to Meigs under police escort at 11:30 p.m. The crews carved huge "X's" and other divots into the 3,899-foot-long runway to prevent planes from landing.
In a letter sent to the aircraft owners group, the FAA's enforcement division said it "determined that reasonable grounds exist to commence an informal investigation" into the timing of the closure. It also identified the investigator who will conduct the probe.
Under the federal rule in place last spring, a violation carries civil penalties of up to $1,100 a day of violation. A tougher law referred to as the "Meigs provision" was enacted last year. It upped the maximum fine to $10,000 a day.
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said the penalty for the city, if it is found to be in violation, could be for as little as two days of violations. The duration of the probe is not known, he said.
"This would not lead at all to a reopening," he said. "It still sends a message to the city and any other airport sponsor that shutting down public use airports is something we take very, very seriously."
The city said last year that it avoided the waiting period provision because the closure was an emergency measure to protect the public. City Law Department spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyle said the city sticks by its reasoning.
"We've been very aggressive about defending the closure of the airport, and we'll continue to do so," Hoyle said Thursday.
Rachel Goodstein, president of the Friends of Meigs Field, said it welcomes the investigation.
"It did seem to us that there was wrongdoing involved," she said.
The Chicago Park District is pushing forward with Daley's dream of turning Meigs -- also known as Northerly Island -- into a park. Plantings are planned for the spring, and the Park District has said it will get community input soon on the park's design.
Feb. 11 — AOPA's claim that the city of Chicago violated federal law and aviation regulations when it shut down Meigs Field last March has merit, says the FAA, and will be investigated. AOPA filed a formal complaint following the destruction of Meigs's runway on Mayor Richard M. Daley's order, claiming the city failed to provide adequate notice, as required by the FARs. The complaint will not result in the airport's reopening but can lead to the mayor and the city being punished for their actions.
"AOPA intends to push for the appropriate penalty to be imposed on the city," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Mayor Daley and any other state or local official who may want to follow Daley's lead must be made to understand they cannot unilaterally change the National Airspace System."
The manager of the FAA's Enforcement Division sent a letter of response to AOPA's complaint against both the mayor and the city, saying "reasonable grounds exist" to begin an informal investigation into the allegations.
AOPA maintains that Daley and the city of Chicago violated both the U.S. Code and Federal Aviation Regulations. The U.S. Code states that an airport or landing area not involving the expenditure of federal money may be altered substantially "only if the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration is given reasonable prior notice, so that the Administrator may provide advice on the effects" of the alteration. In order for the administrator to carry out that obligation, Federal Aviation Regulations state that anyone intending to alter a runway, deactivate a runway or airport, or change the status of an airport must submit notice of that intent at least 90 days prior to taking such action.
The FARs do provide for immediate emergency action, such as in the case of national security, which was Daley's original claim. However, even in the case of an emergency, if the airport has a charted instrument approach, which Meigs Field did, a minimum of 30 days' notice must be given.
An informal investigation proceeds at the discretion of the assigned investigator, in this case the manger of the Chicago Airports District Office of the FAA's Great Lakes Region. At the end of the investigation, the FAA will issue an Enforcement Investigative Report. If the report suggests that there's evidence to proceed, then the FARs say "a notice of proposed order may be issued or other enforcement action taken." That enforcement could be anything up to and including fining the city for its action. There is no time limit for an informal investigation, but any civil penalty action must be taken within two years of the event — in this case by March 30, 2005.
To ensure that nothing like the Meigs debacle happens again, AOPA lobbied hard on Capitol Hill for the Meigs Legacy provision, which is part of the 2003 FAA Reauthorization bill. It provides for hefty fines against anyone who closes an airport or runway without giving the FAA the required notice.
"The fact of the matter is that nothing the FAA eventually does will bring Meigs Field back," said Boyer. "But the FAA's declaring that our complaint has merit sends a message to the next mayor or county supervisor or governor who gets the same idea to shut down an airport in the dark of night — 'don't try it!'"
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