By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — The head of the Chicago Rockford International Airport will retire at the end of the year after more than a dozen years leading the organization.
Mike Dunn has been the airport’s executive director since January 2012 and is credited with helping RFD become one of the country’s biggest hubs for e-commerce and other cargo. He previously served as a board commissioner from 2001 to 2011, including the last eight years as board chairman.
The Greater Rockford Airport Authority on Thursday appointed Zack Oakley, the airport’s deputy director, to succeed Dunn on Jan. 1, 2024.
“It has been a great honor to serve the community through my work at the airport,” Dunn said in a news release. “When I first started, the growth potential at RFD was untapped and enormous. Now, it’s a top 15 cargo airport in the United States and an economic driver connecting the world’s supply chains while growing jobs right here in the region.”
Dunn’s tenure is highlighted by the airport’s exponential growth in cargo operations over the past five years. In 2018, RFD was named the fastest-growing cargo airport in the world and it now ranks as the 14th largest cargo airport in the country.
“Mike Dunn’s service and work ethic is unmatched – and we as citizens are better because he advocated so tirelessly on behalf of the state, the community, and the airport,” Paul Cicero, chairman of the airport board, said in a news release. “On behalf of the board, we thank him for his dedication to moving RFD forward. The airport board is looking forward to working with Zack Oakley in his position as executive director. The board has had a long and very positive relationship with Zack over the last six years”.
The cargo growth also became a source of contention over the past 18 months as environmental advocates pushed for the airport to redesign a portion of its multi-million expansion to spare a rare gravel land known as Bell Bowl Prairie. The airport ultimately moved forward with construction on March 9.
Even as those advocates fought to save the prairie, they recognized the airport’s key role in the region’s economy. They said they wanted the expansion to go forward in a way that saves the prairie, and the endangered rusty patched bumble bee found there, but they said airport leaders including Dunn ignored their calls to redesign the expansion.
Local, state and federal leaders have all recognized the airport as a premier engine for job growth under Dunn’s leadership. Gov. JB Pritkzer, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara were among those to release statements Friday congratulating Dunn on his retirement.
“Under Mike’s leadership, Chicago Rockford International Airport became the fastest-growing cargo airport in the nation and a leading economic driver for the region — supporting 21,000 jobs, fostering billions in economic
revenue, and connecting millions of visitors to Illinois year in and year out,” Pritzker said. “Mike, congratulations on your retirement and thank you for your commitment to our great state.”
According to a 2020 Illinois aviation economic impact analysis, the Rockford airport spurred $4.7 billion in economic activity, the third-most for an airport in Illinois behind Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare airports.
The study said that RFD was a catalyst in the creation of 21,476 jobs in the region. That was an increase of nearly 75% from an analysis conducted in 2012.
In 2021, record cargo numbers grew again by 25%, with more than 3.4 billion pounds of landed weight traveling through RFD compared to 2.7 billion pounds in 2020.
RFD is home to the second-largest UPS hub in North America, and it is a major base of operations for Amazon Prime Air. It also serves more than 15 international airlines and freight forwarders.
The airport and Rock Valley College partnered to expand an aviation maintenance technology program in 2014. That program gave incentive for AAR Corp., the world’s largest airplane maintenance, repair and overhaul company, to choose Rockford for its jet-repair hub. That facility opened in 2016 and employs more than 400 people.
“The airport’s greatest accomplishments belong to the community,” Dunn said. “Thank you for the support and for the hard work from the men and women at the airport. I have no doubt that Zack will lead the next bright chapter at RFD.”
Oakley is the current deputy director of planning and operations at the airport. He’s responsible for overseeing the planning and construction of more than $150 million of air cargo infrastructure improvements. He is an Accredited Airport Executive through the American Association of Airport Executives, which is the highest professional designation an airport professional can obtain. Roughly 600 people actively hold this designation, according to RFD.
“I am a product of opportunities provided by RFD. I have had a love of aviation since I was 4 years old, but that is not the only reason I ended up pursuing this career,” Oakley said. “It was a part-time job after high school loading aircraft at UPS and a conversation with a UPS pilot that pointed me in the direction of the Aviation Management Program at Southern Illinois University. After graduation I jumped at the opportunity to return home and accepted a job at RFD.”
Oakley has worked full time with the airport since 2006, starting as an operations and facilities specialist before he was promoted to a supervisor, then operations manager. He has been in his current role since 2017.
“In my 17 years at RFD, I have played a key role in shaping and delivering change,” he said. “I am looking forward to continuing to grow and provide economic opportunities to the region, expanding our cargo operations and passenger destinations, operating a safe and secure airport for all our users, engaging the local community, and providing the best passenger experience possible for all travelers.”