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FAA requires name change for Waukegan airport

The south entrance Waukegan National Airport. | Dan Moran/Sun-Times Media

The south entrance of Waukegan National Airport. | Dan Moran/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 19, 2014 3:47AM

Roadside signs around Lake County still refer to it as Waukegan Regional Airport, but a new welcome sign off McAree Road reflects the facility’s official new federal designation as Waukegan National Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration classification, enacted last year, reflects that not only does general-aviation aircraft fly around Lake County after leaving Waukegan, but jet traffic starts international travel from its 6,000-foot main runway.

Airport Manager Jim Stanczak said on Friday, Jan. 17, that the new moniker wasn’t something sought out by the Waukegan Port District — FAA officials required it.

“They just came out and said that ‘we’re reclassifying certain airports,’ and ours happened to be one of them,” Stanczak said. “It was based on aircraft operations, number of aircraft at the airport and the number of jets at the airport, and we qualified for everything.”

The origin of the name change can be traced as far back as the fall of 2010, when the FAA launched a review of the nation’s 2,952 general aviation airports. The stated goal was to craft definitions that “reflect the airports’ roles in their community, region and national system.”

In May 2012, the study — dubbed “General Aviation Airports: A National Asset” — proposed four new categories for the facilities: national, regional, local, and basic. Waukegan’s former designation, regional, was defined as having an ability to “connect communities to statewide and interstate markets.”

The national designation, by contrast, was intended to reflect access to national and international markets.

“They accommodate a full range of aviation activity,” the FAA findings stated, “including large corporate jet and multi-engine aircraft operations, significant charter passenger services, or all-cargo operations.”

The report added that national airports “often work in conjunction with, and in support of, hub airports serving the aviation needs of larger metropolitan areas.” Waukegan is a designated reliever airport for O’Hare International Airport.

As the new definitions were assigned into 2013, Waukegan became one of 84 airports nationwide given the national tag. Other suburban airports earning that label were Aurora Municipal, Chicago Executive in Wheeling and DuPage in West Chicago.

Among the numbers associated with a national airport are at least 5,000 flight operations, at least 11 based jets, at least 20 annual international departures, or at least 1,000 annual interstate operations.

The new name marks the third change in the history of the airstrip. It opened as a private operation called Lake County Airport in 1943, and was renamed Waukegan Memorial Airport after the Waukegan Port District purchased it in 1955.

The change also comes at a time when Waukegan National is seeing its flight operations decline, a trend over the past decade that has often been attributed to such things post-9/11 precautions for private-pilot training and the rising cost of aviation fuel.

According to Stanczak, Waukegan National’s total flight operations for 2013 came in at 45,858, down from 49,337 in 2012, a 7.1 percent decline. In December alone, operations were down from 1,541 in 2012 to 803.

While Stanczak said that specific late-year drop might be attributed to the weather, the long-term causes are tougher to identify.

“It’s hard to figure out. I thought that we were on the upswing,” he said. “A lot of it is the fuel — a lot of guys are just not flying as much as they used to. But with our business (traffic), our fuel delivery has been pretty consistent. We’re down .5 percent for the year, which is not bad.”

A gallon of aviation fuel costs $6.77 at Waukegan National, a figure that Stanczak said compares favorably to rates of $6.66 and $6.69 at Chicago Executive. He added that he thinks Waukegan is in a good competitive position for the future if plans for a runway expansion bear fruit.

“If we get that runway to 7,000 feet, business here is going to pop,” he said. “If we don’t extend it, and if they don’t provide for a safety zone, you’re going to see all the business aircraft departing Waukegan, and we could become strictly a general-aviation airport.”

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