Chicago Executive Airport / BGA photo

With O’Hare Airport expansion well underway, the long, bitter fight over new runways there is over. The airfield’s owner, the City of Chicago, prevailed over suburban opponents.

But a new runway battle is brewing about six nautical miles to the north – at Chicago Executive Airport, a less-known but busy facility geared toward corporate fliers, flight schools and small-aircraft owners.


Planes taking off and landing, and other activity at Chicago Executive Airport this past Thursday. Airport is located in Prospect Heights and Wheeling. No audio.
Source: Better Government Association


Formerly called Palwaukee Municipal Airport for its location at Palatine Road and Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago Executive is owned by Prospect Heights and Wheeling taxpayers and overseen by an appointed government board. Earlier this year, airport officials embarked on a study that could lay the groundwork for dramatic changes to the airfield – including a 2,000-foot extension to an existing 5,000-foot runway.

Nearby residents worried about the future are organizing, and recently formed a new group, Citizens Against Runway Expansion, or CARE.

Similar issues are surfacing as in the once-contentious debate over O’Hare, which is in the thick of a multi-billion-dollar project to reconfigure runways and complete other infrastructure work that Chicago contends will “reduce flight delays and increase capacity well into the future.”

That means noise, air pollution, safety and the possible demolition of residential units are all concerns of those living near Chicago Executive.



Chicago Executive Airport tower / BGA photo


“We don’t want the amount of flights to expand, we don’t want bigger jets, we don’t want cargo, and it is disruptive now, they fly all night, no one is policing it so far as the sound levels, which are very high,” said Wheeling resident Laurel Didier, a CARE member.

Expansion opponents have created an online “say no” petition, with more than 360 signatures to date. But they’re also talking about becoming more aggressive in their opposition, even floating the idea of a political-action committee that would support candidates with sympathetic views.

Airport board meetings, once relatively quiet affairs with few in attendance, are now livelier with sometimes-vocal residents and, at times, a police presence.



Chicago Executive Airport / www.chiexec.com


The airport, while certainly not as large as O’Hare and Midway, is the third busiest in the Chicago region, with roughly 80,000 takeoffs and landings a year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. More than 200 airplanes are based there. Of Chicago Executive’s three runways, the longest is 5,000 feet, which airport officials say could be expanded to 7,000 feet as part of one scenario.

But airport officials insist this is far from a done deal.

“It’s really a big-picture look at what this airport should look like in the future,” airport Executive Director Jamie Abbott said of the study.

The end result could mean few if any changes to the airfield or, among other things, longer and reconfigured takeoff and landing space to accommodate corporate jets carrying more fuel for international travel, airport officials said, acknowledging a longer runway could lead to more flights and noise, and the demolition of an unknown number of homes and businesses.

The study is in its initial phase, with a second phase expected to take another few years and zero in on any potential improvements.



Chicago Executive Airport sign / BGA photo


FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said his agency knew the Chicago Executive study was planned, but otherwise “we haven’t been involved.”

Ultimately, if the study leads to proposed airfield changes, “if they want federal funding they can’t put a shovel in the ground until they have approval from the FAA,” Molinaro said.

Any major improvements would also have to get OK’d by the Prospect Heights city council and Wheeling village board, said Wheeling Village President Dean Argiris, adding he’s supportive of the study, but not supportive of any runway extension “that would take out parks, schools and homes” in his town.

Charlie Priester was hired by Chicago Executive to oversee the study. Priester’s family owns and operates an aircraft management and charter company at the airport, and the clan used to own the airport itself, until selling to the two northwest suburbs in 1986.

Priester said federal funding would be crucial for any large-scale project.

But he said there’s a lot of “misinformation . . . that we’ve already decided” what’s going to happen.

That’s not true, he said, although one reason expansion is being studied is because of trends in corporate air travel – companies increasingly want their jets to be able to travel longer distances without stopping to refuel. Jets with more fuel are heavier, and heavier planes need longer runways.

Priester said he can put residents’ minds at ease on cargo operations – which are feared by neighbors because such flights could involve bigger planes operating at night.

Priester said: “There are not going to be cargo flights in the airport, period.”

In fact, if airfield changes occur, “the nature and the type and size of the aircraft using this airport is going to be exactly the way it is today,” he said.

But he acknowledged that, if it’s determined runways should be altered, private buildings could be in the path and might need to be razed. Roads also might need to be moved.

He said it’s too early to talk cost for any of this, although a former chairman of the board that governs Chicago Executive, Allan Englehardt, said the runway extension plan was floated several years back when he was still on the panel. Today, Englehardt said, the project would likely cost $150 million.



Location of Chicago Executive Airport / www.chiexec.com


He also noted a different study two years ago looked at the possibility of lengthening Chicago Executive’s main runway, and pointed out that some FAA officials objected because of potential airspace conflicts with O’Hare air traffic.

“This place is landlocked, let’s do the best within the confines of what we have,” said Englehardt, a retired United Airlines pilot. “My biggest problem is it doesn’t make sense to do something that’s so expensive to benefit so few.”

But Priester countered that any expansion should not be judged so narrowly. A vibrant, modernized Chicago Executive would hopefully attract more aircraft owners and travelers, keeping the airfield “relevant” and also rippling into the local economy through restaurant visits, hotel stays and the like. And the airport would be better positioned to lure into the north and northwest suburbs more companies looking for accessible corporate travel.

Didier, a former member of Wheeling’s Plan Commission, said dealing with the airport on this runway issue might have been easier if airport officials were better neighbors to nearby residents – as it now stands there’s no regular noise monitoring and few if any restrictions on night-time flights.

Mary Papantos, an expansion opponent who plans to run for the Wheeling village board, said even if decision-making on Chicago Executive is years away, residents are gearing up now.

“We don’t want to end up like O’Hare where it’s too late to do anything,” she said.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, who can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9030.