Editorial: Durbin, Bustos continue House-Senate partnership to boost RFD growth

Originally appeared in the Rockford Register-Star.

There’s more good news to celebrate at Chicago Rockford International Airport. That’s a line we use a lot, and with good reason. Progress at the airport means progress in the northern Illinois economy, because the airport is a key driver of growth in the region.

The latest upbeat note to report is the $6 million in federal funds announced today by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, whose 17th Congressional District includes the airport.

The money is earmarked for the 25,000-square-foot passenger terminal expansion project, now underway. This $20 million addition to the 1987 terminal will grow the airport’s passenger-handling capacity, which the Federal Aviation Administration told the airport it needed to do to cope with growing passenger counts, especially in winter when snowbirds are heading for warmer climes to the many resort destinations served by the airport. The project is about 60 percent complete.

That money is in addition to a $455,000 federal grant Bustos and Durbin announced just two weeks ago for construction of a 30,000-square-yard cargo apron to meet existing demand of cargo plane users.

Terminal expansion is just one of many signs of progress at the airport known as RFD in the aviation business. Just this past weekend the airport opened its runways to ABX Air, which in tandem with Pinnacle Logistics will load and unload Boeing 767 jets filled with freight. The service began with one jet and is expected to increase to four or five jets a day by the end of the year. The business employs 64, mostly part-time people, a number that is expected to grow.

This new business venture is possible because nearly a decade ago the airport’s forward-thinking board decided to build a 72,000-square-foot freight warehouse to attract airfreight business. It has taken awhile, but the speculative project is now beginning to pay off.

The 200,000-square-foot, twin 10-story maintenance, operations and repair hangars are complete, and Wood Dale-based AAR, the nation’s largest MRO operator, is moving its equipment in. When the $40 million facility opens later this fall, the company will be able to service the biggest airplanes in service, including the giant Airbus 380. The firm is expected to hire 500 people initially, with possible expansion to double that number in the future.

Of course, we expect that many of those airframe and power plant mechanics will be graduates of Rock Valley College’s new, expanded aviation career program, which opened in 2015 at a new site about a minute’s walk across the street from AAR’s hangars. Graduates have been promised an interview by AAR.

RFD continues to be UPS’s second largest hub, with 14 flights a night in and out of its massive terminal. We’re hopeful its business will increase because the MRO is available for servicing the company’s jets.

Durbin and Bustos are continuing a long history of bringing millions of dollars of federal funds to improve RFD’s infrastructure, including reconstruction and reinforcement of the runways and ramps, construction of the operations building on Falcon Road, helping to rebuild Falcon and Beltline roads and expanding parking lots. The House-Senate partnership began years ago when Durbin teamed with then-U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Egan, for whom the international terminal he and Durbin helped to fund is named.

The aim of all these projects, of course, is to expand the airport’s economic development role — read jobs —  as a crucial element of our many aerospace industries, as well as to grow our passenger business to bring air travelers to a hassle-free airport that still offers free parking and where the security lines are short.