Guest Column: 2004 a great year for Rockford Airport

The last several months of 2004 were fast paced and full of challenges. Our airport has gone from no air service to four air service partners and 14 destinations: Aruba, Atlanta, Bahamas, Cancun, Costa Rica, Cozumel, Denver, Ft. Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Puerto Plata, Punta Cana, and San Juan.

When I accepted the opportunity to become the executive director of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority, I did so knowing in my heart that this community was going to experience explosive growth, assuming we could stay focused and unified in purpose. My vision for the Greater Rockford Airport (RFD) was, and continues to be, to become one of the top 20 and 100 airports in this nation for air cargo and passenger service, respectively. Moreover, “if” done right, we would create jobs, enhance the quality of life for the region’s citizens, and position the airport to eventually be capable of coming off the tax rolls. That is it in a nutshell—but easier said than done.

For the last 24 years, I’ve heard my wife repeatedly say to our two boys: “Life is all about choices.” In May 2003, we asked the community to weigh-in by donating $10 or more toward a goal of raising $250,000 in 20 days to demonstrate to the airline industry (and one another) that we are serious about wanting quality air service. We made it perfectly clear that the fund-raising campaign would be over in 20 days, not 21, 22, or more. If we didn’t raise at least $250,000, we’d return everyone’s money. Given such an outpouring of support, we felt confident in our ability to land non-stop jet service to Las Vegas and/or Orlando.

Hindsight being 20/20, it has been a truly wonderful thing to watch the community rally around its newfound sense of confidence in their airport. If we are to be faulted, it should be that we made it look too easy. It wasn’t. To that end, I believe we owe an absolutely huge amount of gratitude to the Airport Board of Commissioners, the 4,732 individuals and businesses that contributed the $270,000 toward the aforementioned goal, and a dozen or more civic-minded community leaders, all of whom shall remain nameless.

So what’s next, you might ask? Well, I guess that depends on whether you share my vision for the airport and are willing to accept the associated responsibilities. Responsibilities? Yes, that’s right, responsibility.

Not unlike my wife, I, too, have a developed a theme that somewhat defines my moral compass. I believe “change is inevitable; you can either affect change or be affected by change.” I choose to affect change. It’s who I am.

So what’s my point? It is this: “we” can cause to happen what others have falsely accepted as impossible, MIDWAY II northwest of Chicago O’Hare. Properly done, we will create a “hassle-free, low cost, high value experience,” second to few other airports.

When I was hired, few people thought much if anything would happen by way of air service. Nevertheless, people gave me a chance, the board in permitting me to go to the public, and the public in donating their hard-earned money to see what might be possible (emphasis on “might”). Then TransMeridian Airlines took a chance, as did the Board of Commissioners again, when the parties forged a unique business relationship to initiate low-cost, non-stop jet service to Las Vegas and Orlando.

Over the course of the next year, my fellow employees and others like the Greater Rockford Transportation Coalition, stepped up repeatedly asking, “How can I help insure the success of the airport?” Subsequently, we picked up seasonal service to San Juan, Puerto Rico, connecting service to Fort Lauderdale, and then the value added benefit of one-stop service to seven Caribbean destinations via Vacation Express.

Flash back 16 months ago and recall that we had no regularly scheduled service out of the Greater Rockford Airport.

With the recent addition of low-cost, non-stop jet service to Atlanta and Denver, with connecting service to Myrtle Beach by Hooters Air, we are clearly on our way toward creating regional awareness for “RFD” as the Northwest Chicagoland International Airport at ROCKFORD (RFD).

Now, as of an announcement in December by Sunship1 Boeing 757 service to Cancun—RFD went international!

Together we can gain more; divided, we will stagnate or, worse yet, self-destruct. I suspect, hope and admittedly pray that we will remain focused and unified in purpose.

Bob O’Brien is executive director of Northwest Chicagoland International Airport at Rockford.

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