One of America’s most powerful politicians and a top US businesswoman have joined forces with the leader of Birmingham City Council in his quest to see direct flights resumed to Chicago.
Coun Mike Whitby has returned from a three-day trip to the “Windy City” where he met leading executives from Kraft, United Airlines and city mayor Rahm Emanuel as he sought to strengthen links between the two second cities.
While seeking reassurance from Cadbury owners Kraft about the food giant’s commitment to Birmingham, Coun Whitby also used the trip to press United over resurrecting direct flights between the two cities.
“Every now and again you have to reflect on what this relationship is about and the real glue that binds this relationship is when it has an economic rationale,” said Coun Whitby.
“The cities trade with each other or share each other’s connections and when you consider Chicago airport has 72 million passengers that fly on around the world and we see ourselves as a global city, the link between the two is paramount, and it is important we have that point-to-point connection.”
Coun Whitby held talks about direct flights with previous Chicago mayor Richard Daley five years ago but to no avail.
This time, however, he felt he made significantly better progress. He said: “We now have in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is according to many the third most powerful US politician, a politician wanting to befriend Birmingham.
"But my first port of call before that was to United Airlines, the largest airline in the world since its merger with Continental, which already has a favourable relationship with Birmingham.
“My first meeting was with the two vice presidents and what they are very impressed with was our ‘global city, local heart’ mission statement.
“For this to be true, a city has to first believe it is globally relevant and then have credibility to be globally relevant and they have seen our links to China and the Middle East.
“What is also impressing them is the £6 billion of transport infrastructure that is guaranteed for our city, including extending the runway, the new New Street station, Deutsche Bahn investment, the Snowhill to New Street metro extension and upgrading stations around Birmingham.
“So United are keen to see these links continued. It is clear United is determined to increase economic activity into and out of Birmingham Airport. There was reassurance that we’d moved the agenda forward and we are hoping for good news from that.”
Coun Whitby said that while he had been reassured by the response of United, he had been further buoyed by meetings with Kraft, which like United, is headquartered in Chicago.
He said: “I had a one-to-one with Irene Rosenfeld where I told her we were so pleased they were going to become part of the family of Birmingham and that they have our friendship. We guaranteed all the support they need as such a significant member of that family.
“She said Cadbury is part of their global plan and that Cadbury Birmingham will be a global centre for all their chocolate and confectionary business.
“I then mentioned that if Kraft sees Birmingham as an important part of the business, would she not like to see point-to-point flights between two cities. She said she had just been through procurement with United for Kraft staff and she said she would lobby on our behalf to resume point-to-point between the two cities.”
Coun Whitby also met Mayor Emanuel and explained the close links between the two cities and the importance of US investment in Birmingham.
“We have 240 companies that are US owned, underpinning 60,000 jobs in our city, and they are one of most generous investors in Birmingham,” he said.
“The mayor said he understood that and wanted to grow that. I asked him how we should contact each other as I’ve had to come via Newark and he said he promised the next day to phone the chief executive at United and lobby to resume direct flights.
“There is no doubt we are so close, that the economic case is strong and now we have very powerful lobbyists, not just from the US, but Chicago, where the airline is based.”