• Alex Nitkin
    OCT 04, 2021

    International flights could take 2 years to bounce back, city aviation chief says

    Flight volume at O’Hare Airport was about 73 percent of pre-pandemic levels this summer, Chicago Department of Aviation Comm. Jamie Rhee said Friday. [Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago]

    Domestic travel to Chicago’s airports — especially Midway International Airport — is steadily rebounding from its pandemic doldrums, but international travel will take longer to complete its comeback, the city’s top aviation official told aldermen Friday.

    Department of Aviation Comm. Jamie Rhee spent less than an hour on Friday afternoon updating members of the City Council on flight volumes, hiring progress, minority contracting programs and more at Midway and O’Hare International Airport. It was one of the shortest budget hearings of the week, as aldermen mostly lavished praise on Rhee’s stewardship of the department. 

    Rhee said the aviation department has had a “very rough year” as airlines try to rebound from the pandemic, but flights have “progressively gotten better and better” in 2021. O’Hare through the first seven months of 2021 recorded about 54 percent as many flights compared to 2019, and Midway notched a return to about 73 percent of its 2019 business. But the numbers were brightest in July, when flights at O’Hare and Midway were respectively at 73 and 93 percent of their July 2019 levels.

    The airports both draw their revenue from dedicated city funds fed by airline fees, rather than taxpayer dollars.

    “We have seen a return to domestic and leisure travel, so Midway has recovered much faster than O’Hare,” Rhee said Friday.

    International travel, which makes up about 30 percent of flights to and from O’Hare, “continues to lag” as countries wrestle over pandemic-related travel restrictions, Rhee said. She cited the International Air Transport Association, which has “predicted it’s maybe going to take until 2023 to see that recovery, and a large part of that is…people being vaccinated.” 

    The department is on track to grow its count of full-time employee slots by 23 workers at Midway, and O’Hare is in line for an additional 94 full-time staffers under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2021 budget proposal. Rhee said the department was “thoughtful” in asking for the new positions as it simultaneously looks to tend to the 293 existing vacancies among its approximately 1,600-member workforce.

    The aviation department has been a consistent target for aldermen looking to notch up the city’s partnership with minority-owned contracting firms. Rhee faced a barrage of questions at her budget hearing last year about how the department would make sure disadvantaged firms are at the forefront of the $8.5 billion “O’Hare 21” initiative to rebuild the flagship airport’s Terminal 2 and expand its international terminal by 2025.

    Related: Aviation chief vows diverse hiring as $8.5B O’Hare expansion moves forward

    And last month, multiple Latino aldermen voted against approving a concession agreement for O’Hare in protest of low Latino participation in the department’s Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program.

    Related: O’Hare concession agreement clears divided committee as Latino aldermen question its ‘parity’ and ‘equity’   

    But the department has stepped up its partnership with minority-owned firms in the past year, spending more than $210 million with minority- and women-owned contractors in 2021 — “38 percent of our total spend and a $72 million increase over 2020,” Rhee said Friday.

    “Mayor Lightfoot made it clear that we could not allow the pandemic to derail our commitment to equity and inclusion, and we did not,” Rhee said Friday.

    Aldermen have noticed, they said. 

    Ald. David Moore (17) credited the department for having “made history, not only in Chicago, but in the world,” by including a Black-owned firm, Bowa Construction, in the O’Hare 21 project.

    Moore and other members of the City Council last year held up a $56 million contract for construction on an O’Hare cargo facility — until lead contractor Aeroterm agreed to enlist Bowa and a Latino-owned firm.

    Related: $56M O’Hare project sails through committee after contractor elevates Black-owned construction firm

    “I don’t think that got the recognition that it should have gotten,” Moore said Friday.

    Ald. Leslie Hairston (5) has also taken multiple city departments to task — including the Department of Water Management hours earlier — over their track records on minority contracting. But she struck a different tone with Rhee on Friday.

    “I have my notes from last year, and everything she said she was going to do, she did that and more,” Hairston told Ald. Derrick Curtis (18) as he presided over the hearing.

    “And that earned my respect — unlike some of the other departments,” Hairston said.

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