Midway growth spurt

December 15, 1999

BY SUSAN DEGRANE

Midway Airport has held many claims to fame. For 33 years, it was the world's busiest airport. Today, while dwarfed by rival O'Hare Airport, Midway is the country's fastest growing airport, thanks to a $762 million construction program.

With the expected completion of a new terminal in 2001 to be followed by construction of new concourses, Midway will have 55,000 feet of concession space, the most of any airport in the United States, said Dick Unzelman, program manager for the Midway Airport Terminal Development program.

"It's a marquee element of the new terminal," he said. The airport's current concession area is about 18,000 square feet.

The largest portion of the new concession space will be in the terminal under construction east of Cicero Avenue between 55th and 59th streets, and will accommodate retail shops, a food court and restaurant.

"Concessionaires have already submitted their proposals, and they're about to be selected," Unzelman said. "At this point, we don't know exactly [who] they'll be, but we know there will be a McDonald's since McDonald's is locally based."

Air traffic at Midway increased 15 percent in 1998 to 11.3 million passengers. This year, traffic has jumped another 20 percent, leading to an increase in travelers waiting in hallways for flights and using crowded washrooms.

After construction of the new terminal, new concourses will be built. Forty-one gates will be built to replace the existing 29 gates. Waiting areas at the new gates will have 1,600 square feet, doubling the size of the existing waiting areas.

"The expansion allows us to grow and add new flights, but also the design of the waiting areas makes it easier to accommodate the passengers. They'll be a lot more comfortable while they wait," said Peter Houghton, manager of properties for Southwest Airlines. "Right now we're looking at 13 gates, vs. 19 in 2004."

As Midway's major carrier, Southwest will have the most new gates. American Trans Air, a charter company, will expand from five gates to 12.

Funding for the Midway expansion is coming from airport revenue bonds, the Federal Aviation Administration and passenger facility charges.

Traffic surveys conducted in the last decade indicate the airport is frequented heavily by vacationers--50 percent or more--which results in peak use of economy parking on the weekends, Unzelman said.

Midway is known for providing economy fares, so the design of the new airport will be "very functional, light and clean," to avoid driving up costs to customers, he added.

Besides showcasing the city and catering heavily to vacationers seeking economy fares, the new Midway will attract frequent business travelers.

The garage entrance to the terminal will place travelers 15 feet from the ticket lobby.

Amid the new construction and demolition of the old facility, officials expect little disruption of airport activity since the groundwork for the expansion has been ongoing, said Dennis Gurgone, managing deputy commissioner of development for Chicago's Department of Aviation.

Earlier this year, employee parking was moved to the northeast corner of 55th and Central Avenue, and most employees ride a shuttle to the airport.

Cicero Avenue was rerouted to make way for the new terminal and parking structure. A new fire house was built on 63rd for airport emergency services.

The only feature that will remain unchanged is the landing field, Gurgone said.

The airport terminal and concourses, which will triple in square footage, are expected to support 16 million passengers, enough to satisfy travel needs until 2010, Unzelman said.

Susan DeGrane is Chicago-based business writer