Midway Airport getting new parking spaces, concessions, security checkpoints

Darlene Hill and Corey McPherrin.

- Midway Airport will get 1,400 more premium parking spaces, an 80,00 square foot security hall to expedite passenger screening and a Taste of Chicago-style concession makeover, thanks to a $248 million upgrade.

Two years after pulling the plug on a deal to privatize Midway after one of only two bidders left the runway, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the biggest upgrade of the Southwest Side airport since his predecessor’s $927 million reconstruction project that included a brand new terminal.

Emanuel tipped his hand on the plan to overhaul Midway concessions during an hour-long interview with the Chicago Sun-Times that preceded his second inauguration.

“There’s a lesson to be learned by what I did at the international terminal. Today, O’Hare has the single best international terminal in the United States. It looks and feels like it should. Airports today are changing. They are destinations,” the mayor said then.

“I want the domestic terminals [at O’Hare and Midway], when we do the concessions, to look and feel like the international so people have an experience. I want them to be like Chicago so the 60 million people coming in and out say, “That’s Chicago.” Look at Rick Bayless in there and you have a feeling of Chicago. Can we bring some of the culinary experiences that people have in the city to O’Hare? A lot of our top chefs want to have something there.”

On Thursday, Emanuel took the first step toward delivering on that vision.

His plan calls for adding 20,000 square feet of concession space to bolster the $89.2 million in food and retail revenues generated at Midway last year while turning all concessions over to a single operator.

The goal, said Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer, is to showcase the best of Chicago’s world-renowned restaurant scene.

Midway’s main parking garage would get four additional floors with 1,400 more premium parking spaces.

And Midway’s passenger terminal would get a new, 80,000 sq.ft. security hall to dramatically expand the number of checkpoints and eliminate, what has been a notorious passenger bottleneck.

The $248 million makeover is expected to create roughly 1,000 construction jobs. Midway concessionaires—including Mac One, owned by the clout-heavy Rand brothers—have been operating on month-to-month contracts at Midway while waiting for City Hall to unveil its grand plan.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley rebuilt Midway before putting it on the block, only to have the deal fall apart for lack of financing.

Emanuel’s plan to make a major investment in the one-square-mile airport-in-a-neighborhood doesn’t necessarily preclude privatization, either.

But, in an interview last month, newly-appointed Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans made it clear that she has no desire to go down that road again after it failed twice.

“I don’t see any reason to revisit that….We’ve been down that path twice. It’s a very big distraction of time and resources,” she said.

Noting that Midway is “at the bottom” among top 30 U.S. airports in both retail and food and beverage sales-per-passenger, she said, “There’s lots of ways the city can benefit from continued growth and improvements at Midway and we need to pursue all of those very vigorously. We certainly don’t want to be distracted by something that has proven to be a blind alley in the past.”

The upgrades showcased Thursday mark the latest chapter in Midway’s roller-coaster ride.

In 1992, Mayor Daley infuriated his Southwest Side political base by declaring plans to close Midway Airport within five years — after his now-defunct Lake Calumet Airport was up and running — and turn it into an industrial park.

Twelve years later, Daley joined the CEOs of ATA and Southwest Airlines to bask in the glow of the $927 million reconstruction project that turned an airport resembling a “ghost town” when Midway Airlines folded into one of the fastest-growing airports in the nation, serving 18.5 million passengers a year.

“I once called Midway the ‘comeback kid of airports.’ When you look around today, Midway’s story seems like Cinderella. Once taken for granted. A little shabby. Now, attractive and ready to move into the future,” Daley said on that day.

Daley’s Midway makeover nearly quadrupled the size of the passenger terminal, added 19 new gates and built a new customs facility that paved the way for direct international flights for the first time in 50 years.

Cicero Avenue was moved 2,300 feet to the east to ease traffic flow and improve airport access. The new Midway also has 50,000 square feet of restaurant and retail concession space, up from 18,200 square feet.

“Just a few years ago, Midway Airport was a rundown facility with poor services and few passengers. No one in his or her wildest dreams could have conceived what it has become in just eight years,” said George Mikelsons, chairman and CEO of ATA.

Herb Kelleher, then-charismatic CEO of Southwest, bounded to the podium and shouted “Hallelujah!,” presented Daley with a Herb Kelleher bobblehead doll and threw in a gift for Midway passengers: more than a dozen white straw rocking chairs to be placed througout the airport.

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