December 22, 2000 Chicago Tribune


John Schmeltzer
December 22, 2000

Ever since the Dec. 11 blizzard, cargo operations at the Gary-Chicago Airport are all that have kept some Ford Motor Co. assembly plants operating--here and around the country.

Gary-Chicago, for those North Siders who don't venture south of the Eisenhower Expressway, is the little airport just over the state line in Gary that Gov. George Ryan wishes would go away.

"The snowstorms have created transportation problems for Ford's Torrence Avenue assembly plant and Ford's stamping plant in Chicago Heights," said Will Davis, owner of the Gary Jet Center, the fixed-base operator at Gary-Chicago that has stepped in to keep parts moving in and out of the two plants.

"We did in excess of 75 planes last week," said Davis, who said the drumbeat of arrivals and departures filled with just-in-time parts shipments hasn't slowed much this week.

These aren't Piper Cubs. This is big iron--C-130s, DC-8s, L-188s--that are using every foot of the airport's 6,500-foot runway to move racks of hoods, fenders and other large stamped parts that normally are shipped by rail or truck to Ford's assembly plants around the country.

The Gary-Chicago Airport, which receives about $2 million annually from Chicago, would become a much bigger airport under a plan to be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration early next year, according to Paul Karas, the airport's administrator.

That plan, which was unveiled this week in preliminary form, calls for extending the main runway to nearly 9,000 feet and extending the crosswind runway to about 6,000 feet, along with a new terminal capable of handling dozens of passenger flights daily.

Karas said the airport has begun acquiring land needed for the expansion, which would cost $300 million to $700 million.

Currently, the airport handles four passenger flights daily by Pan American Airways.