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Flashback Fridays--Chicago Midway and Southwest Airlines

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On St.Patrick’s Day, Southwest Airlines celebrated 25 years of service to Chicago Midway Airport, and I thought this would be a good occasion to take Flashback Fridays on the road to look at some history in another city.  There is no doubt that Midway’s magnificent new terminal is a jewel, and it is convenient and comfortable—even with great food choices.  However, I may be in a tiny minority, but I miss the old terminal. 

I got well acquainted with the old terminal during a 1995 trip when I was doing research for a story about the airport that appeared in Airways magazine.  The views above and below show that the building retained its original look from when it was designed in 1942.  Due to World War II, the building didn’t completely open until 1947.  Even though it was completed after the war, its art deco appearance is more similar to the prewar terminals at LaGuardia (especially the Marine Air Terminal) and Paris LeBourget, rather than its true postwar contemporaries at airports like San Francisco and Seattle/Tacoma.  In the round area underneath the original control tower is where Marshall Field’s Cloud Room Restaurant (a very popular Chicago dining destination) was located for many years.

The view above hadn’t changed since Cary Grant stepped out of his cab in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest to check in at the Northwest ticket counter.  Cary's cab stopped just under the "A" in "Chicago."  In 1959, Midway was the world’s busiest airport with 10.4 million annual passengers and 431,400 airline movements.  In 1996, the terminal matched those passenger numbers, but it did it with 174,400 fewer flights.  When I first stepped into the lobby, it was crowded and bustling just like it must have been in 1959.  This just goes to show that aviation’s “golden age” wasn't always serene.  To see a video of Midway at its zenith, click here

The coming of the early jets doomed Midway.  The airport used to sit in exactly a square of one mile, and the runways simply were unable to handle 707s and DC-8s.  The airlines packed up and moved to O’Hare, and Midway was a ghost town.  It wasn’t until the advent of the DC-9, 727, and 737 that airlines began to venture back to the South Side.  To entice them, the airport tore down the slightly older International Terminal that was located farther south on Cicero Avenue, and they also tore down the original concourses on the main terminal and built new, longer concourses.  (Keep in mind that all of the passenger spaces were on just one level.)  Several airlines did move some services back to Midway, but by the early 80s, only Delta was left with a few DC-9s to St. Louis.

Below, we see the concourse that occupied the site where the former International Terminal stood.  Southwest used this concourse and we see the control tower that replaced the original tower on top of the terminal.  (A new tower has replaced this building.) 

In the view below, we see a Southwest flight parked along one of the “new” concourse.  Even though the concourses are all one level, jetbridges were used.  Customers would wait on the ground level and then climb stairs up to the jetbridge.  (Lifts were provided for disabled Customers.)  Midway’s rebirth began in the 80s, when Chicago-based Midway Airlines began operating from the airport.  When Midway went bankrupt in 1990, Southwest quickly expanded our service.  Today, we are the airport’s largest carrier.

Looking below, we see a shot between the inner two concourses, from where many of the other carriers operated.  It’s interesting to note the neither Air South nor Kiwi are still in business, and America West purchased US Airways and kept the US Airways name.  During the time when Midway was the world’s busiest airport, this area would have been filled with DC6s, DC-7s, Constellations, Convair Liners, and other prop aircraft parked all over the place.  Here’s a link to a photo from that time.

And finally, the view below is of the terminal from Cicero Avenue.  The current concourses sit where the terminal is in this view, and the current terminal would be off the screen to the left on the other side of Cicero.  Amazingly, given the tight quarters Midway occupies, the City of Chicago was able to build an entirely new terminal complex without severely disrupting any airline operations.



We are very proud of our home in the new terminal and concourse at Midway, and we are equally proud of our 25-year history in the Windy City.  Stay tuned for next Friday to see where we flash back.