Study measures economic lift of local airports
By Christin Nance Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org October 6, 2012 11:26PM
Flight instructors Eric Renn (left) and Evan Munson, both of Griffith, observe their students taking their first solo flights at the Griffith-Merrillville Airport in Griffith, Ind. Friday September 28, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 8, 2012 6:01AM
Gary/Chicago International Airport projects that nearly 10,000 passengers will fly to and from Sanford, Fla., this year on Allegiant Air.
In July, Vice President Joe Biden flew in and out of Porter County Regional Airport on a fundraising trip.
Fifty Chinese students are receiving flight training at Griffith/Merrillville Airport.
Each of these situations impacts Northwest Indiana beyond cost of the flight itself — from customers patronizing local restaurants to students needing to rent apartments and cars.
The Aviation Association of Indiana, in connection with the Indiana Department of Transportation and Conexus, is taking a different look at how airports big and small impact surrounding communities economically. Its annual study, due out in mid-October, used to focus almost exclusively on businesses within the airport boundaries.
Now, the study, which involves the Indiana Department of Transportation and Conexus, will take into account factors such as sales at rental car agencies and local jobs that require frequent jet trips, as well as the indirect effect of how airport employees spend their wages at restaurants and other local businesses.
“If a company has a airplane at an airport, previously we would count only the flight department itself,” said Aviation Association of Indiana Executive Director Bart Giesler. “Now, we’re asking the company what percentage of sales and contracts are due to the use of the airplane. We wanted to find a way to tie it to jobs in the community.”
Northwest Indiana’s regional airports mainly serve corporate clients, but a variety of other entities frequent local airports, including politicians, military personnel and law enforcement.
Griffith-Merrillville Airport general manager Craig Anderson cited businesses such as Meijer, Carmax, Super 8 and BP that regularly use the airport to conduct business.
“Businesses can do so much more with private aircraft,” Anderson said. “Say that a company has three or four plants in the Midwest, a manager can visit them all in one day and come back the same night and land at an airport close to facility. If they drive or take an airline, it could take two to five days.”
In terms of traffic, Porter County Regional Airport leads the way with an estimated 69,000 operations (departures and arrivals) per year, ranking third in the state, and it’s No. 1 in terms of the number of aircraft (165) stored there. In a 2008 count, Griffith-Merrillville Airport reported 33,699 operations, and Gary reported 30,733 operations in 2011.
Stewart McMillan, president and CEO of Valparaiso-based Task Force Tips, said owning a corporate jet is ideal for the company to bring in potential customers.
On the ground, local airports have maintenance facilities, restaurants and aviation-related businesses. Griffith-Merrillville Airport has one of largest piston engine overhaul facilities in United States and a large flight school.
“Currently, we’re training 50 students from China to become pilots,” Anderson said. “They live in the local area, pay rent at apartments and shop at local stores. It definitely benefits the local economy.”
At any given time, Griffith-Merrillville averages 60 employees at the airport’s various businesses.
The Gary Airport’s location amid the industrial area in northern Lake County and its proximity to Chicago make it an attractive place for corporate aviation clients, such as Boeing, to use and store their planes.
For years, Gary/Chicago International Airport has struggled to attract commercial airline traffic due to its runway length and nearby limitations. In 2009, plans were finalized to relocate the Canadian National Railway tracks and expand the runway. The $160 million project is under way and it is expected to be complete by late 2013.
Bill Hanna, executive director of the Regional Development Authority, said the $166 million project is critical to the airport’s future.
“Allegiant Air wanted to fly to Las Vegas but the railroad tracks prevented certain loads and they wanted to carry enough fuel without having to make a stop,” Hanna said. “It shows you the opportunities that are being lost currently.”
Hanna said Gary has an opportunity to be a much busier airport because it’s surrounded by industry, so noise levels wouldn’t disturb the community.
“(Local airports) are all a little bit different, but they all have advantages,” he said.
The construction project is creating or supporting 822 jobs in 2012 and 2013. Between 2009 and 2013, the total economic impact of the expansion project — which measures direct, indirect and induced spending — is estimated at $266.9 million.
Plans for the future
Local airports are using federal and local funding to plan for future success.
Porter County Regional Airport is in the final stages of a planning process focusing on ways to improve the airport and the surrounding area.
Director Kyle Kuebler said the airport recently received the third installment of a Federal Aviation Administration grant for its 20-year comprehensive master plan. The $143,344 will help develop a plan to guide the airport from concept to construction.
In addition, the airport and representatives from Valparaiso and Porter County are working on an airport zone development study, which examines the 15-square-mile area surrounding the airport to identify the next industrial park or Eastpointe Center, Kuebler said.
Gary’s airport consultants Brown and Landrum and JClark Aviation Group are helping develop the best ways to market and position the airport.
JClark COO Al Stanley said the Gary airport will look at vendors that could provide provide complementary services once the runway extension is complete.
“We’ve seen in the past that businesses like FedEx need to be in close proximity to airport distribution centers, so they can fulfill their mission of getting items to customers overnight,” Stanley said. “We need to help increase their speed to markets.”
Griffith-Merrillville Airport recently received a $63,900 FAA grant to help plan for drainage and culvert improvements during the ongoing construction of its parallel taxiway.
“The construction of the taxiway at the airport is a great safety enhancement for aircraft operations as well as an attractive point in bringing in more traffic to the local area, thus enhancing economic development in the region,” Anderson said.