Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling is exploring whether to build a new customs building that officials say would lure more overseas international flights -- boosting jet fuel sales in the process.
Airport officials say preliminary estimates indicate it could cost $3 million for the proposed 4,200-square-foot U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.
Officials haven't yet projected how much more fuel they would expect to sell, but George Sakas, the airport's director of economic development and strategic planning, said an improved customs facility would make Chicago Executive more attractive for international flights.
"As far as revenue goes, the more customs operations, the better," Sakas said. "They're longer flights. They require more fuel."
Fixed-base operators sell fuel at Chicago Executive. Wheeling and Prospect Heights, which jointly own the airport, receive tax revenues from fuel sales. That revenue must be spent on airport-related expenses, under federal rules.
There were 453 international flights that landed at Chicago Executive through November 2018 -- below the 521 at the same time in 2017 -- that required federal customs services such as clearing passengers, accepting merchandise and collecting duties.
Airport Executive Director Jamie Abbott said what's driving the proposal are new federal government standards for customs facilities that are supposed to be met as soon as possible. The new facility would streamline the customs operation currently based out of a hangar, officials said.
"We are challenged by not really having the space to grow into or expand the current facility," Abbott said, "and needing to choose a neutral site to relocate the facility."
If built, the Chicago Executive customs facility would address federal government demands by increasing safety and providing larger pre- and post-clearance processing areas, bathrooms for passengers, a staff locker room, vestibules and a secured computer network room.
Chicago Executive board Director Neal Katz of Wheeling expressed concern about projections showing it would cost the airport $225,000 annually to operate the new customs facility. Some Prospect Heights and Wheeling residents have questioned whether the proposed $3 million building would ever pay for itself.
Abbott said the airport hopes to have a specific location pegged for the customs building in the spring. Sakas said it's hoped construction begins in 2020, if the facility is approved by the Chicago Executive board.
Under the current system, a foreign aircraft crew calls the local customs office and schedules a clearance with officers at Chicago Executive. Abbott said the plane taxis to the hangar with the customs operation and parks in a red box painted on a ramp, where an officer processes passengers and luggage before it moves on to its final destination elsewhere at Chicago Executive.
LaGrange-based 845 Design Group is among the consultants assisting on the customs proposal. Jamie Zaura, an executive at the architecture and design firm, said the proposed building has preliminary approval from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the customs agency.
Abbott said Waukegan National Airport and DuPage Airport in West Chicago are in a similar situation of needing better customs facilities as directed by the federal government.
"We all have unique circumstances to the situation," he added.
Abbott said officials are studying financing options for the Chicago Executive proposal, including fee increases, using capital reserves, securing a loan or a combination of all three. He said the Wheeling village board, as representatives of a home-rule community, would have to approve any borrowing.