A plot of land on Chicago’s Near West Side once polluted with arsenic and asbestos will get a clean start Thursday as a helicopter airport that investors say fills a void in air service to the downtown area that has existed since the city bulldozed Meigs Field 12 years ago.
The $11 million Vertiport Chicago, in the Illinois Medical District near the Eisenhower Expressway, is aiming to attract a customer base of corporate CEOs and board chairmen who need to get from Chicago-area airports to the city’s commercial center in just a few minutes and are willing to pay a premium to do it.
A big question is, with the hourly rate exceeding $3,000 to rent a deluxe helicopter with two pilots aboard, is there a large enough market to make the privately financed Vertiport profitable?
We are not going to be the cheapest place to hangar a helicopter, but we strongly believe the demand is out there,” said Mike Conklin, Vertiport Chicago’s president and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who flew President Bill Clinton on a Marine One helicopter.
Chicago-area companies are looking into acquiring helicopters because of the Vertiport, which has been in the works since 2006, but Conklin notes that executives won’t be the only people using the facility.
Emergency medical services helicopters serving hospitals in the medical district, as well as police and fire department choppers, will have priority use of the single landing/takeoff spot at the Vertiport around the clock, paying no landing fees.
Also, a DHL Express helicopter has been transporting documents requiring early morning delivery at downtown banks and law firms from O’Hare International Airport to the Vertiport since early this year, officials said.
Last, space has been set aside in the 11,700-square-foot Vertiport terminal for a helicopter sightseeing business to ferry tourists to the lakefront near the downtown skyline and back.
DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said he likes the Vertiport’s chances, but the key is for the facility to take off quickly.
“Chicago has turned its back on the downtown helicopter business since the closure of Meigs Field, so there is strong pent-up demand,” Schwieterman said.
He cautioned, however, that the upfront costs of building the Vertiport will put pressure on the private venture to quickly make the business plan work.
The travel time-savings for executives is indisputable, Schwieterman said, “but a factor hard to predict is whether executives will see arriving in the medical district as akin to arriving downtown. Most are unfamiliar with the area.”
Conklin, 59, noted that Meigs was a strong draw among business leaders and conventioneers flying in private planes until Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered that the single runway at Chicago’s former lakefront airport be destroyed in a midnight raid, conducted without FAA approval, in late March 2003.
Now, high rollers will be able to exit their corporate jets at Chicago-area airports such as O’Hare or Midway and immediately board a helicopter for a quick hop to the Vertiport, which is about 2 miles west of the Loop, then transfer to a limousine for a roughly eight-minute ride to meetings in the central business district.
During a tour of the Vertiport by the Tribune this week, Conklin showed off offices, crew sleeping quarters and showers that are also available for rent by emergency services companies and other corporate users such as air charter firms.
The site at 1339 S. Wood St., which is being leased from the Illinois Medical District Commission, features eight helicopter parking spots and a 30,000-square-foot hangar where space can be rented out for helicopter maintenance and VIP seating during events. The airfield also has underground fuel storage tanks with a capacity of 22,000 gallons.
DuPage Airport in West Chicago, which has been growing its business aviation sector in recent years, is working on a marketing partnership with the Vertiport to offer a “hot spot rapid transfer” of passengers from corporate jets to for-hire helicopters, said David Bird, executive director of the DuPage Airport Authority.
“When Air Force One and Marine One come together, in that world it’s known as the marriage,” Conklin said. “We will have the ability to do that at DuPage. If time is of the essence, then you have the ability for someone to walk off of a fixed-wing aircraft and onto a turning helicopter (blades spinning) to get downtown.”
This Tribune reporter experienced the quick flight connection between the Vertiport and DuPage Airport, 35 miles apart by car, during a 12-minute helicopter flight Monday.
Helicopter routes generally follow major highways. On our round-trip flight in a luxury, five-passenger helicopter to DuPage from the Vertiport, the view below was of heavy congestion on the Eisenhower Expressway.
The cost to charter a helicopter and a flight crew varies, based on numerous factors. Our flight Monday was operated by HeliMotion, a charter service based in Joliet. The flight’s captain, Michael Franck, said the charge to charter his company’s twin-engine Dauphin AS365 is $3,600 per flight hour.
“Higher-end customers, that’s where we get the request of a twin compared to the single-engine,” Franck said.
Part of the rate reflects the insistence by wealthy customers that HeliMotion carry $50 million of life insurance on its operations, compared with as little as $1 million of coverage by some for-hire helicopter services, said Franck, who is director of operations at HeliMotion, which also operates the helicopter flights for DHL using a Bell 206B3 Jet Ranger.
Conklin, the ex-Marine One pilot, said he expects business will soon grow from the four-days-a-week DHL flights to about 20 flights a day, expanding to 80 to 100 daily operations within five years. Normal operations will be 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but emergency-response flights will have access to the Vertiport all the time, he said.
Ed Forst, director of aviation for the Duchossois Group based in Wheeling, said the group’s companies are considering reintroducing helicopters to the corporate fleet because of the Vertiport. He said other Chicago-area companies are weighing the same decision.
“These guys (corporate executives) make billion-dollar decisions daily,” said Forst, who is also president of the Chicago Area Business Aviation Association. “Putting them on Chicago expressways during rush hour is not maximizing their efficiency.”
The Chicago Vertiport could become a magnet for business helicopters, he said, much like Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, which is 12 miles from midtown Manhattan.
“There are helicopters going to downtown Manhattan every 15 minutes from Teterboro,” Forst said. “You see all this high-priced iron (corporate jets) coming in from all over the country and there is a helicopter waiting for them to take them to downtown in minutes because the executives want to maximize the business that can get done.”
Medical flights bound for the Vertiport currently use an existing helipad in Pasteur Park, near the old Cook County Hospital, but will cease using that site within a month, officials said.
Unlike the helipad, the Vertiport provides an obstacle-free approach and departure path, state-of-the-art airfield lights to maximize a pilot’s situational awareness and taxiways that lead to a dedicated entry point for ambulances, officials said.
“The Illinois Medical District Commission is thrilled that Vertiport Chicago will provide timely, lifesaving operations to the hospitals, particularly when seconds matter” in transporting patients who are in critical condition or organs for transplant operations, said Heather Tarczan, spokeswoman for the commission, which fosters economic growth in the 560-acre medical district.
She said the 10 acres were vacant for years before the Vertiport project. The commission is still seeking to develop about 30 acres elsewhere in the medical district, Tarczan said.
The four hospitals in the district are the University of Illinois Hospital, Stroger Hospital, Rush University Medical Center and Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Under the agreement with the medical district, the Vertiport will pay the district a 5 percent share of net revenues from landing fees and other charges paid by commercial customers, in addition to the Vertiport owners paying monthly rent and other fees based on the square footage of the facility and how much aviation fuel is sold. The fees are set to escalate over the contract’s life, Tarczan said.
The 52-year lease for the Vertiport started in mid-2011 and payments started in late 2012, totaling $43,500 for the first 12 months of rent, she said.