Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling still plans to build a multimillion-dollar customs facility for international flights, but some officials have raised concerns about spending the money to start the federally mandated project this year.
Driving the financial concern is what airport Executive Director Jamie Abbott said is a dramatic decline in takeoffs and landings this month compared to a year ago due to travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Probably 60% to 70% down in aircraft operations," Abbott said, "and we're not quite sure yet how that's going to translate into fuel sales and so forth, which affects our revenues."
Airport officials say it could cost $3 million for the proposed 4,200-square-foot U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, which would replace a more bare-bones operation. The federal government is not assisting with the expense.
George Sakas, the airport's director of economic development and strategic planning, said the funding would come from available cash, reserves and a loan. Chicago Executive board Directors William Kearns and James Kiefer at a recent meeting addressed the possibility of delaying the customs project to early 2021.
"I hope that we don't," Kearns said. "I hope that we just continue along, but we have to be realistic and think about if there is a point at which we say, 'You know what? We've got the engineering. We've got this ready to go, but we can't start construction for a year because of revenues or because of other uses for the cash.'"
Plans call for the new customs building to be on a site where Hangar 4 was razed in mid-April near Wolf Road. The new 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 is co-owned by Wheeling and Prospect Heights. The Wheeling village board and the Prospect Heights city council get the final say on the airport's spending and approved a $4.6 million 2020-21 budget at separate meetings this month.
Before the Wheeling village board approved the airport's budget, Trustee Mary Papantos called the planned customs facility a "pretty expensive venture" for what typically are 450 international operations annually. Chicago Executive handled 74,204 arrivals and departures in 2019, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Papantos asked Abbott what would happen if Chicago Executive no longer had a customs facility.
Abbott responded that customs is expected by users of Chicago Executive, DuPage Airport in West Chicago and Waukegan National Airport. He said user fees are charged by Chicago Executive to the airplanes that receive services from U.S. Customs.
"So, if you don't use it, you're not necessarily paying for the service, but if you're using it, you're definitely getting a bill for what it costs us to operate that," he said.
Projections have indicated it would cost the airport $225,000 annually to operate the new customs facility.