Lewis airport taking off

Corporate jets make use of university runways

Monday, October 2, 2000

By Rex Robinson
Staff Writer

What began as a place for Lewis University students to learn about aviation is fast becoming the airport of choice for corporate jets flying into Will County.

Projections show flights in and out of Lewis University Airport in Romeoville will double from 100,000 this year to 200,000 in 2005, according to Chris Lawson, the airport's director of aviation.

And it's not just the smaller planes being lured to the airport.

With a new racetrack set to open next year in Joliet, Lewis officials are being told to expect 400 planes just during race dates.

"I don't know Dale Jarrett from Dale Earnhardt, but by golly we're learning real quick," Lawson said.

The airport also gets very busy in early July during the Western Open at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont.

Lawson said each year when the Pro Am gets under way on July 4, the airport is flooded with corporate jets.

In an effort to prepare for the expected increase in air traffic at the airport, located just west of Illinois 53 between Taylor and Renwick roads, construction has started on a new north-south runway.

The airport now has only one east-west runway, which restricts small corporate planes to landings and take-offs only on clear days when the wind is blowing from the right direction, Lawson said.

If strong winds are coming from the north or south, pilots are told to find another runway.

When the new runway is completed in the next three to five years, planes will be able to land at Lewis in any weather conditions, Lawson said.

The projected cost to build the new runway is $18.5 million, most of which will come from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Airports from around the country vie for annual funds from the FAA. Lawson said the completion date of the new runway depends on how fast the Joliet Port District, which oversees airport operations, receives the needed funds.

George Michas, chairman of the district board, is confident Lewis eventually will receive the funds necessary to complete the runway construction.

"It's going to take time, but it's going to happen," Michas said.

A name change also could be in the future, since it is no longer owned by Lewis University, Michas said.

The airport has grown dramatically since the port district purchased it from Lewis University in 1989. At the time of the purchase, the airport included 170 acres. It has grown to about 900.

Lawson said the port district started with a single, 3,000-foot-long runway that has now grown to 5,700 feet.

The new runway will be 6,500 feet, he said.

The first phase of construction is a $500,000 drainage project, which will divert storm water away from the site to a new detention pond, northeast of the airport. It should be completed this fall.

Next, crews will begin the massive task of filling in the site with dirt to bring the runway's area up to grade level. Lawson said the land for the new runway is now 35 feet below grade level.

Construction of the new runway will mean the eventual permanent closure of about 2,500 feet of Airport Road.

The village of Romeoville is in line to receive a $2.4 million grant to reroute Airport Road around the new runway.

The port district and the village have just worked out an intergovernmental agreement that will set the wheels in motion for planning the new road system.

Bill Taylor, interim village manager for Romeoville, said it could take a year or two before those plans are completed.

"The village and the port district are working together to try to resolve the road system issue," Taylor said.

Village officials are waiting to see what plans the Pizzuti Cos. have for an internal road system for a proposed commercial development planned for Airport Road near the airport.

In July, the Columbus, Ohio-based company announced plans to build between 15 and 40 buildings for offices and stores south of 135th Street, bounded by Airport Road on the south, Weber on the west and Lewis Airport on the east.

Residents who live near the airport and use the road are eager to see the final plans for road changes around the airport.

Some residents are not as bothered by the airport expansion plans as they are about the proposed closing of a portion of Airport Road.

"That's the only part that bothers me," said Juanita Klimec, who lives in the 19200 block of Airport Road.

Klimec has lived along Airport Road for the past 40 years, and uses the road in both directions. But as long as an alternative route is provided, she said, the road closing shouldn't be a problem.

"I guess we have to go with the flow," Klimec said.

Klimec's neighbor Carol Misiurewicz also uses Airport Road often. She's in favor of the airport plans for a close-to-home reason.

"My husband's a private pilot," she said.

The expansion of the airport is inevitable, and airport officials say there is no other way to add the new runway without closing a portion of the road.

Michas said years ago, when the Joliet Port District first purchased the airport, he was somewhat naive about the need for an airport in Will County.

But with the large number of corporations in Will, he has learned just how important it's become.

One of the strongest indicators is the number of corporations within a 15- to 20-mile radius that have at least one company aircraft. In 1994, a survey showed that there were 20 Fortune 500 companies - from Citgo to Caterpillar Inc. - that fit that bill.

There are now 290 planes based at Lewis, and that number is expected to grow to 390 when the new runway is finished.

Annual jet fuel sales also tell a story about the airport's growth.

In 1996, the airport sold 50,000 gallons of jet fuel. Last year, that number was 250,000 gallons.

A new $1.9 million terminal building that opened in December serves as a hangar for corporate jets and is filled on most days with planes.

John Mullins, operations manager at Lewis University Airport, wasn't sure that would be the case.

"When we first moved in here in December, we were kind of worried about filling it up," Mullins said. "But lately, we've had people in here left and right. The corporate side of this airport has just picked up tremendously."

The terminal building also houses administrative offices, a small flight shop, five other offices for rent, a day-room for pilots and a weather planning room, equipped with a Doppler radar system, and other computers used for navigating the airways and maps.

The state has identified Lewis Airport as a reliever airport in Will County.

"The state's really tried to beef up the ring road system around Chicago, and Lewis was fortunate enough to be picked as a reliever airport," Lawson said.

Along with other reliever airports in Waukegan, Wheeling and Aurora, Lewis is high on the state's list of airports in need of enhancement for corporate travel, said Terry Shaddel, airport planning engineer and environmental officer for the Illinois Department of Transportation's division of aeronautics.

The state's goal is to reduce congestion at O'Hare and Midway airports by providing the small, reliever airports for corporate jets around Chicago, Shaddel said.

He said corporate jets have a slower stall speed, and that creates a problem when the planes are landing and taking off at larger airports, like O'Hare.

"For safety purposes, we don't want to have large airliners coming up on smaller aircraft," Shaddel said.