South Suburban Airport discussion gets new life, but does Chicago need another airport?

Chicago-area International Airports

Construction of a long-discussed third Chicago airport has been newly championed by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois in a letter signed by 53 other area politicians, but as has been the case in previous years when the idea has emerged, local critics are unconvinced a new greenfield airport is viable for the city. 

In the letter, addressed to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Rep. Kelly said the South Suburban Airport (SSA) could be a “state-of-art e-commerce hub” and “a new ‘downstate’ passenger and cargo hub for residents and businesses” in southern Illinois and northwest Indiana. According to Kelly’s letter, planning for the airport is already 90% completed, as the state government owns 90% of the required land and has funds appropriated for the remainder, while the Federal Aviation Administration has also approved 90% of the pre-planning and only awaits a final proposed “master plan” before it could issue a final Record of Decision.  

Kelly also requested the governor set aside $150 million in the 2020 capital bill for “initial off-site improvements” including a new I-57 interchange, local road upgrades and utility connectivity projects in support of the airport. The governor has recently made statements supportive of the new airport. However, local media and some local politicians, including current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are doubtful that a new airport is needed to meet current or future demand, advocating instead for capacity expansions at existing airports. 

Currently, Chicago features two international airports – Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Chicago Midway (MDW but the larger region contains another two: Chicago Rockford (RFD), 85 miles northwest of Chicago, and Gary/Chicago (GYY), about 25 miles from the Chicago loop and just over the border in Indiana. RFD is already emerging as an e-commerce hub for the region, thanks to Amazon’s strategy to grow its air footprint at the airport, and Director of Business Development Ken Ryan told Cargo Airport News that airport leadership believes “Rockford Airport is the right one for cargo development,” but declined to comment beyond that.  

According to the FAA, the O’Hare Modernization Program will reconfigure the older airfield into a more efficient runway, terminal, and roadway system associated with a new airfield. Photo courtesy – Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA).

Meanwhile, Chicago is already home to one of the world’s busiest cargo airports in ORD. The airport, which ranked No. 18 in our list of Top 25 Cargo Airports for 2018, is also the sixth busiest airport for cargo in North America, with a 2018 cargo handle of about 1.86 million tonnes. A spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Aviation, which covers both ORD and MDW, also declined to comment on the proposed airport, instead deferring to comments already made by Mayor Emanuel. For his part, the mayor is dismissive of the need for development of SSA, saying this week that the city is already “making an unprecedented investment in modernizing O’Hare,” adding an entire airport’s worth of capacity with its modernization program, and that MDW will also be getting work to add cargo capacity, local radio station WBBM reported on Monday.