March 8, 2001 Chicago Tribune

Tribune Staff Writer
March 8, 2001

Midway Airport's new passenger terminal opened to mixed reviews Wednesday as travelers dealt with a couple of glitches but generally praised a building they found far superior to the timeworn structure it replaced.

There were a few bumps in the road. Most of the boards displaying flight information at the baggage carousels weren't operating, and some passengers complained about moving sidewalks that ended abruptly. But many passengers also complimented the city and the airlines for a relatively smooth debut.

"I'm kind of in awe," said Lee Hastings, 56, of Rochester, N.Y. "It went from this quaint little airport to this huge expansive operation," he added, waving a hand at the vast lower level of the new terminal, which houses eight baggage carousels.

The opening marked the largest milestone in the city's $793 million Midway redevelopment program, announced by Mayor Richard Daley seven years ago. Construction began in 1997. The project will triple the existing floor space in the airport and increase the number of gates to 41 from 29.

Hastings, part owner of a New York advertising firm, said he will miss the convenience of having everything at Midway under the same roof until the first airline gates are moved to the new building next winter.

"That's what I always loved about Midway: The minute you walked into the place, everything was right there," Hastings said. "But you can tell, once they get this done it's going to be nice."

The entire project, including the demolition of the old terminal, is expected to be complete by 2004.

In the meantime, Hastings said he can tolerate the walk across the indoor pedestrian bridge that links the new terminal, where passengers check in and pick up their baggage, and the old terminal, where they still board and disembark from the planes. Walking at a moderate pace across the bridge to the gates, a distance of about two blocks, takes less than five minutes. Walking from the parking garage to the farthest gates takes about 10 minutes.

The 900-foot bridge is equipped with two sections of moving sidewalks, separated by a long stretch where there is no walkway.

"Why did they even bother putting them in, is what I'm wondering," said a slightly perturbed Don Painter, 64, of Hoffman Estates.

"It was more convenient when the airport was a little smaller, and your gate was right there, but if you've ever gone through O'Hare, the walk is comparable," said Painter's wife, Bea, 54.

Chicago Aviation Department spokeswoman Monique Bond said she did not know why the moving sidewalk was built with a gap longer than the combined lengths of the two sidewalks.

"What we're seeing is that passengers are creatures of habit. It's understandable if they need time to adjust. But once they start to use the facility, they'll see [the walk] is not that far," Bond said.

"And you have to keep in mind that once it's all done, the gates are going to be a lot closer."

Bond called the opening "a huge success," adding she was unaware of any incidents of lost luggage or passengers missing their flights.

Bond confirmed that boards for displaying flight information at the terminal's baggage carousels were malfunctioning but said the airlines are responsible for their operation.

Officials at America Trans Air and Southwest Airlines, the principal carriers serving Midway, could not be reached.

Airport workers who drive three electric courtesy carts were busier than usual Wednesday, according to cart driver Walter Jackson.

"Most of the elderly people have been asking for rides. I've pretty much been running all day," said Jackson, adding that he can carry up to eight passengers on his cart and make 40 round trips across the bridge in an hour.

"The only problem we really have is people who just don't understand where certain airlines are. We all try to answer them as best we can."

The city stationed 40 Aviation Department employees around both terminals to guide passengers confused by the new layout. And several airlines released employees from their regular duties to greet and direct travelers as they entered the terminal from the 3,000-space, six-level garage that opened in 1999.

The terminal development project will allow ATA to expand its service, including the addition of international flights to the Caribbean and South America next year.

When completed, the terminal and concourse area will be more than triple the size of the current terminal's 260,000 square feet, allowing the airport to add more flights and accommodate more passengers.

More than half of the 41 gates at the terminal will be assigned to ATA and Southwest Airlines.

Last year, the airport handled about 300,000 landings and takeoffs--nearly the same number it handled in 1999--compared with the 450,000 operations in 1959, the year O'Hare International Airport opened.

About 800 departures and landings moved roughly 40,000 passengers through Midway Wednesday, which is normal for a weekday, Bond said.

While the terminal is the biggest part of the Midway renovation, the airport will remain a work in progress.

Other amenities--such as the terminal's new 55,000-square-foot concession triangle expected to open this summer--will be added between now and 2004.