Mayor Richard M. Daley has dreamed of turning Meigs Field into a park for years but state officials forced him to keep it open, using it as a bargaining chip in efforts to expand O'Hare International Airport.
Meigs, which was used only by small planes because of the length of its runway, sits a mile south of the Loop, just off the city's museum campus and Grant Park. Sixteen private planes were left on the tarmac as heavy equipment gouged "X"s in the concrete runway, rendering it unusable, overnight. Daley said the city would reimburse owners for the expense of removing their planes.
Meigs first opened in 1948 and last year handled 31,948 takeoffs and landings, which now will have to be shunted to the city's two major airports -- O'Hare and Midway -- or regional fields at least 30 minutes away from the downtown area.
"We have done this to protect the millions of people who live and visit our downtown Chicago," Daley told a lunchtime news conference.
"Nine days ago, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the Department of Homeland Security had approved our request for flight restrictions over greater downtown. This simply is not enough to ensure the appropriate level of safety and security for the city of Chicago."
Federal officials agreed to a no-fly zone prohibiting private aircraft from flying within 3,000 feet of the ground over downtown Chicago and much of the North Side.
Daley, who won re-election with 79 percent of the vote last month, admitted he does want to put a park where Meigs sits and there was no "specific threat" spurring the city's action.
But, he said, "I am not willing to wait for a tragedy -- as some have asked me to do -- before making a very difficult and tough decision."
Other city officials said the decision on whether to close Meigs was strictly up to the city and Daley said the death of the O'Hare expansion bill in Congress sealed Meigs' fate. He also said the action will save $3 million to $4 million a year, which currently is collected from the airlines to subsidize the lakefront operation.
"There is very little the city can do to reduce the risk of attack by aircraft," Daley said. "We had to fight for months to get temporary flight restrictions. And that's just what they are, temporary. We can control whether we have a city airport just a few seconds away from one of the heaviest concentrations of people in buildings in North America."
The FAA issued a statement criticizing the city's action, saying closing Meigs will put more pressure on O'Hare and Midway airports.
"It's hard to believe anyone would use such heavy-handed tactics," said Steve Whitney, former president of Friends of Meigs. Whitney accused Daley of using the homeland security issue as a pretense. "This is not the way we do things."
Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which has fought Daley's efforts to close Meigs in the past, said he is "shocked and dismayed" over the action.
"Mayor Daley has no honor and his word has no value. The sneaky way he did this shows that he knows it was wrong," Boyer told the Chicago Tribune.