Editorial: Airport plan to lose $100,000?

Greater Rockford Airport Authority Executive Director Bob O’Brien is about to submit to the airport board of commissioners a plan to run 22 flights to Las Vegas. The source adds that O’Brien estimates he could lose at least $100,000 of taxpayer money in the venture. O’Brien would neither confirm nor deny this information.

During an interview with The Rock River Times, O’Brien said he is currently at step four of an eight-step strategy to land passenger service at the airport within the next six to 18 months. Sources assert O’Brien’s plan is to launch two flights per week to Las Vegas for 11 weeks. O’Brien wants the Airport Authority to guarantee approximately 93 percent of the estimated $700,000 expense while the airline would pay the other 7 percent. Reportedly, in addition, O’Brien wants the board to spend up to another $40,000 to advertise and promote the flights.

O’Brien, a Madison, Wis., native, began his tenure in March at $132,000 per year. The Rockford Register Star reported that O’Brien also receives a 10 percent bonus for each airline he lands. Whether O’Brien will

receive a bonus for landing short-term flights to Las Vegas or other destinations is unknown. O’Brien recently convinced the board to hire Deputy Director of Air Service Business Development Derek Martin, for $60,000 per year. Martin’s primary duty is to help O’Brien obtain passenger, charter and cargo service. The Rockford Airport has not had regular passenger air service since June 2001.

Las Vegas and National Airlines

The following information raises further questions about the wisdom of short-term flights to Las Vegas:

1. In June 2001, consultants to the Greater Rockford Airport, the Kiehl Hendrickson Group, tabulated travel agency coupon data and information from 11 of 35 targeted regional travel agencies.

In the order of the most frequented destination, the survey said that Orlando, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, New York, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh are the top seven air travel destinations for Rockford area travelers, respectively. Las Vegas was eighth on the list.

2. On Nov. 6, it was widely reported that National Airlines, which was partially owned by several big Nevada casinos, ceased operations after failing to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. National filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2000.

According to the Associated Press, the Austin American-Statesman said the airline flew about 260,000 passengers per month to Las Vegas from Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, N.J., New York, Philadelphia, Reno, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

3. The Statesman also said on Nov. 15 that National plans to sell its federal flying permit. However, the question remains whether federal rules will allow National to sell its permit. Also, there is a question of whether Greater Rockford Airport officials would be interested in helping an airline purchase this permit.

4. In addition, Las Vegas air fares from Chicago are advertised this week at $163 round-trip on Frontier and American Trans Air. From Milwaukee, Las Vegas air fare is $238 round-trip on America West. The attraction of Rockford-Las Vegas trips would have to focus on local convenience.

5. Chicago-based United Airlines recently announced it will be laying off 9,000 more employees in an effort to become profitable by 2004. However, United will increase its reliance on smaller regional jets that compete against successful lower-cost airlines, said the Nov. 18 Chicago Sun-Times.

6. In the Oct. 7 gubernatorial debate in Rockford, Rod Blagojevich, now Democratic Governor-elect, said several times that Florida is a “natural” destination for flights from Rockford. The data from the June 2001 survey supports Blagojevich’s view.

Airport director

O’Brien came to Rockford from Springfield, where he was the director of Capital Airport for more than seven years. During his tenure in Springfield, the number of passengers at Capital Airport declined every year to 73,936 in 2001 — a total drop of about 40 percent. However, according to a March 1 article in the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Karen Hasara, mayor of Springfield, said O’Brien was a player in a “total effort” to bring two airlines to Capital Airport in the summer of 2001.

In addition to O’Brien, Hasara also acknowledged the efforts of City of Springfield officials, Sangamon County officials, and Springfield area citizens for signing the two airlines. The State Journal-Register said during O’Brien’s tenure, many passengers bypassed Capital Airport. Instead, passengers went to St. Louis, Bloomington and Peoria because of high fares and unreliable service from airlines at Capital Airport.

From 1989 to June 1994, O’Brien was the director of the Dubuque (Iowa) Regional Airport. The State Journal-Register article also said that O’Brien is credited with attracting new air service and increasing numbers of passengers at the Dubuque airport.


O’Brien said he recently sent out 5,000 business/leisure surveys to measure and create support for passenger service. Of the 5,000 surveys, O’Brien said 2,936 went to different businesses and establishments. The other 2,064 surveys were sent to the same businesses and establishments, but mostly at differing locations. The Rockford Register Star reported that the 5,000 surveys went to a 15-county area. In addition, O’Brien has posted the surveys on the airport’s Web site (www.rockfordairport.com). These factors are important because they will help determine the value of the data and information from the surveys.

For a survey to be useful for data analysis, it should be scientifically acceptable. The criteria that must be met for survey results to be scientifically acceptable are sometimes difficult to achieve. However, a scientifically acceptable survey is often worth the effort because it provides a solid foundation upon which ideas may be sold.

Research by The Rock River Times indicates that O’Brien’s survey is not scientifically acceptable for a variety of reasons. Therefore, the data and information derived from the surveys will be very limited in their ability to make statements about the business/leisure travel population O’Brien wishes to target.

The primary fault in O’Brien’s approach is that the survey should be random, not an arbitrary blanket attempt, in its approach.


The Rockford Register Star article that introduced O’Brien also said airport officials hoped that 90 percent of the 5,000 surveys would be returned. This is an unrealistic percentage for large surveys, according to researchers.

Assistant Dean for Health Systems Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School in Rockford Joel Cowan, said the average participation rate for large written surveys is about 15 percent. A good participation rate would be 25 percent, according to Cowan. O’Brien claims 28 percent of the 5,000 surveys have been returned. However, O’Brien expressed dissatisfaction with this participation rate. O’Brien also suggested that people be paid cash to complete the survey.

Compensation for participation in scientific studies is frequently done in clinical and university medical research settings. However, compensation for non-scientific and scientific surveys is not common because of concerns about biasing data and/or expense.

Population and sampling

According to the most recent data from a Web site that incorporates more than 100 federal agencies’ data (www.fedstats.gov), there were 7,060 private non-farm business establishments in Winnebago County, and 733 in Boone County in 1999.

Defined by the Web site, “An establishment is a single physical location at which business is conducted or where services or industrial operations are performed.” In addition, 5,842 of the 7,060 establishments (82.7 percent) are private non-farm businesses that have less than 20 employees. For Boone County, 648 of the 733 establishments (88.4 percent) have less than 20 employees.

These numbers are important because they speak to the size of the business population in

both counties. Knowing the size of the business population is crucial to help ensure that a business survey meets scientific criteria.

O’Brien received his database for sampling the business/leisure area from the Rockford Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber offers two types of databases: the first database is about chamber members only, the second database contains information about 10,000 Winnebago and Boone County businesses, government agencies and non-profit agencies.

It may have been possible for O’Brien to achieve a scientifically acceptable survey using the chamber’s databases. However, considering that the survey area covered a reported 15 counties, combined with the limitations of the chamber’s database, O’Brien’s survey results will be unable to make valid and reliable claims about the business/leisure travel population he wishes to target for passenger service. Furthermore, using O’Brien’s survey, even more limitations will be encountered if airport officials were to draw conclusions about the leisure travel habits of individuals within the 15 counties.

Previous survey

As previously stated, the June 2001 survey by the Kiehl Hendrickson Group said that Orlando, Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta and New York are the top five air travel destinations for Rockford area travelers, respectively. Las Vegas was eighth on the list.

When asked about the survey’s scientific acceptability, researcher Cowan said the data and information from June 2001 is “about as good as it gets.” Cowan also said he would be willing to offer the Health Systems Research expertise and services in aiding O’Brien in his quest for data and information.

However, O’Brien emphasized that the events on Sept. 11, 2001, “changed everything” in air travel. Therefore, O’Brien believes his new survey is justified, despite its lack of random selection and its limited ability to make scientifically based claims.

Travel bank

Again, O’Brien has stated that the purpose of the survey is to measure and create support for passenger service. Similarly, this was the goal of Wichita, Kansas’ Midcontinent Airport Director, Bayliss Bell. He, with the help of his community, succeeded in finding a low-cost passenger airline, AirTran.

Earlier this year, Wichita Mayor Bob Knight said on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, that Wichita airport was so deserted that “you could have shot a rifle off and not hit anybody.” However, that situation changed when a travel bank was created to demonstrate businesses’ and organizations’ commitment to using a low-fare passenger airline.

A travel bank is a group of individuals and organizations pledging to spend a certain amount of their travel money on passenger service at a specific airline and airport. In other words, people put their money where their mouths are — a percentage of individual’s and businesses’ travel budget was put into an escrow account.

In Wichita’s case, more than $5 million was pledged over a two-year period. However, the City of Wichita also had to kick in $4.7 million over the same period to cover the airline’s start-up costs. Knight justified this city expense by pointing out that the Wichita area will receive about $60 million in return by attracting and keeping businesses in the area.

When asked about the possibility of using a travel bank in Rockford, O’Brien said that option is not necessary if his eight step plan is implemented. Citing competitive reasons, O’Brien would not reveal all the points of his plan. However, when pressed further, O’Brien would not rule out a travel bank as an alternative. O’Brien also said Wichita’s airport is different from Rockford’s because Rockford has no passenger service.

Names, buses and leadership

One side of O’Brien’s business card reads, “Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport” in big bold letters. In smaller letters, below and off to the left, reads the airport’s actual name, “Greater Rockford Airport.” Also, on the reverse side, “Rockford” is in big bold letters. Immediately underneath “Rockford,” in smaller letters, is “Northwest Chicagoland Regional Airport.”

O’Brien wants to use the alternative name for the airport because he believes it will change people’s attitudes and behaviors about the airport for the better.

Airport officials are not only searching for passenger service, but appear to also be in search for a name and identity.

Cowan said Rockford better find its identity soon because of new bus service from Rockford to Chicago’s Midway Airport. Van Galder and Peoria-Rockford bus companies are now serving Midway. As Cowan said, “the longer the buses run to Midway, the harder it will be for Rockford to get a value-type passenger air service.”

Governor-elect Blagojevich recently said, “What’s been failing here in Rockford is leadership and a whole generation, this part of our state has been forsaken and forgotten.” Blagojevich’s point is difficult to argue when one considers that O’Brien’s first move to attract passenger service may be to lose money rather than invest it, fly to questionable destinations, create dubious surveys and use two names for the airport.


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