March 8, 2001 Chicago Tribune

Tribune Staff Writer
March 6, 2001

For more than 50 years, passengers departing from Chicago's Midway Airport knew they could arrive minutes before their flight without fear of missing it.

That's about to change.

Starting Wednesday, passengers who still want to cut it close had better wear track shoes.

Chicago airport officials are opening the first phase of the airport's new terminal, a move that will require passengers to hike two blocks from the east side of Cicero Avenue to the existing departure gates across the street.

Like at the old terminal, passengers will still be able to park or be dropped off only a few feet from the new ticketing and baggage areas. It's the hike to the old gates that will challenge more than a few.

Moreover, it could be four more years before the "convenience" Chicagoans associated with Midway is fully back. That's when the last shovel of dirt is expected to be turned on the $793 million terminal development project.

The project will allow American Trans Air, better known as ATA, to expand its service, including the addition of international flights to the Caribbean and South America next year.

"Without this, our expansion plans would be not be possible," said Rick Larsen, ATA's vice president of advertising and sales.

When completed, the terminal and concourse area will be more than triple the current terminal's 260,000 square feet, allowing the airport to add more flights and passengers. It will contain 41 plane-level gates, compared with the old terminal's 29 gates that require passengers to climb stairs to board the plane.

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

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

Still, while Midway air operations barely grew last year, the number of passengers moving through the old terminal, to board bigger planes, has been growing 15 percent a year. Last year, 15 million travelers used Midway, which was designed to accommodate 2 million, said Erin O'Donnell, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Aviation Department and manager of Midway Airport.

Patty Kryscha, district marketing manager for Southwest, said the new terminal will make things significantly better for airline employees and passengers.

"It's going to make it much easier to hear pages, especially on Friday nights when the old terminal was wall-to-wall people," Kryscha said.

O'Donnell emphasized that the opening is just the first of many changes that will be taking place over the next three years as the airport moves into its new quarters.

For instance, food at Midway will remain a work in progress until later this summer, when the terminal's new 55,000-square-foot concession triangle opens.

Passengers can look forward to reprises of popular Chicago restaurants, including Harry Caray's, Miller's Pub, Gold Coast Dogs, Manny's, Lalo's Mexican Restaurant, Home Run Inn Pizza and Tuscany.

But as large as the new Midway terminal and concourses will be, the airport still will be a little sister to the much larger O'Hare.

O'Hare has more than 170 gates housed in four terminals and is preparing to begin construction of a fifth terminal. In addition, while only ATA is planning to begin international service from Midway, both United Airlines and American Airlines, along with 30 foreign carriers, offer non-stop service to more than 60 international destinations.

"Midway has a community-airport personality," O'Donnell said.