If passenger traffic doesn’t increase, try cargo instead – a story of Chicago’s ‘other’ airport

Several years ago, a number of small airports around the major US cities perceived that they could benefit from the growth not only in domestic and North American low-cost airline services but also the then nascent long-haul low-cost segment, having seen such services – mainly transatlantic ones – commence into airports such as New York Stewart International and Hartford Bradley International.


Summary:

  • Chicago Rockford International’s attempt to attract long-haul low-cost airlines has largely failed to date;
  • In fact its passenger activity remains limited, but impressively cargo volume is +77% higher in the first 10 months of 2018;
  • This statistic raises questions about the need for the ‘South Suburban’  cargo airport for Chicago.

As a consequence airports in New England in particular, such as Hartford and Providence, attempted to cultivate long-haul transatlantic service and found a willing partner in Norwegian Air Shuttle, although some services have since been withdrawn and even at Stewart the growth curve has flattened out this year. The most prominent survivor, strangely, is the legacy Aer Lingus service into Hartford.

While trans-Atlantic low-cost long haul is constrained by operational requirements related to the distance flown secondary airports further to the west began also to covet such services, even as far as California. Some airports, such as Oakland International, have been notably successful in attracting and retaining them; others not so much, as yet.

Between the two is the Midwest, where long-haul low cost is yet to make its mark. Only 6.4% of all capacity at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is low-cost of any variety and while it is 95.3% at Midway Airport, 93.8% of that is on one carrier, Southwest Airlines!

Several airports around the Chicago city-region would like a piece of the action. One of them is Gary, Indiana, only 30 miles from Chicago’s downtown and which bills itself as ‘Chicago’s third airport’, but despite extensive private sector investment there, it is still only operating as a general aviation facility.

On the other side of Chicago, to the northwest and 85 miles (136 km) from downtown and a similar distance from Milwaukee, is Chicago Rockford International Airport, as it has been known since 2007.

MAP – Chicago Rockford International Airport can be found 85 miles (136 km) northwest of downtown ChicagoSource: Google Maps

Partly because of a propensity to use bus services to O’Hare, Rockford has made little discernible impact on either the O’Hare or Midway airports. Around five years ago it engaged in a proactive marketing campaign to attract the likes of Norwegian.

Passenger traffic statistics are not readily available after 2013, when there were 218,000 passengers, but it is understood that in 2017 there were around 190,000, a significant decline. The only regular year-round scheduled services are operated by the ULCC Allegiant Air, which traditionally seeks out such ‘out of town’ airports.

CHART – Utilisation at Chicago Rockford International Airport is very low (as today’s schedule highlights). In fact a comparable table for tomorrow shows no passenger flightsSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 26-Nov-2018)

With a 3,000 m runway and a major highway (I-90) running directly into Chicago’s downtown (and past O’Hare Airport), it is perhaps surprising that Rockford has not been able to attract long-haul low-cost; after it is not much further away than Stewart International is from Manhattan. That failure perhaps sends out a warning to other airports with similar aspirations.

But, while it may have failed to secure additional passenger operation, what Rockford has been able to do is to boost its cargo business. In Nov-2018 it reported a 77% year-on-year increase in cargo volumes to nearly 1.7 billion pounds in the first 10 months of 2018. The figure exceeds the airport’s record 2017 full year volumes by 22%.

The airport is served by ABX Air, Air Transport International and Atlas Air on behalf of Amazon. UPS, which shifted its Des Moines, Iowa, operations there in Jul-2017 increased frequency from 34 to 40 times daily and will almost double that before year-end.

It now ranks as the 22nd largest US airport for cargo volume, up from a ranking of 31st in 2016. The passenger terminal building is being extended in a USD18 million FAA Airport Improvement Programme package. Perhaps the money might be better spent on enhancing cargo facilities further?

These developments have a spin-off impact also on the proposal for a new Chicago South Suburban airport at Peotone, principally to act as a cargo facility, a debate which has lasted for decades. In the recent gubernatorial election for Governor of Illinois, the Democrat J B Pritzker, who is a supporter of that project, won, thus putting its construction back into contention.