Chicago’s Midway Airport’s origins can be traced as far back to 1910. Even though a small field at 65th and Major streets housed only a handful of planes, several noteworthy pilots began their flying careers there. One of them was Benjamin Lipsner who eventually organized the U.S. Mail Service.
The Aero Club of Illinois was incorporated on February 10, 1910, with Octave Chanute as its first president. A year later, the club sponsored an international air show and decided to use the lakefront as the location for this event. However, a raining field was needed for the pilots and they used Cicero Field which was was bounded by 16th St., 52nd Avenue, 22nd St. and 48th Avenue. Cicero Field was claimed by the Aero Club to be the world’s busiest airport as early as 1912. The field only existed for three years.
Originally named Chicago Air Park, Midway Airport was built on a 320-acre (1.3 km²) plot in 1923 with one cinder runway that primarily served airmail services.
In 1926 the city leased the airport for commercial purposes from the Board of Education, who owned the land. The airport opened on 8 May 1926 with a mail flight by Miss Chicago to Dallas. Also launched were four carrier pigeons to Washington from Chicago dignitaries.
The airport was dedicated as Chicago Municipal Airport on December 12, 1927 by Mayor William H. Thompson, just six months after Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight.
Chicago Municipal Airport, 1927
As proposed at the Chicago Airport Conference
December 12-15, 1927, Hotel Sherman
The first years of the new airport showed great promise.
The first airmail flight arrived from Omaha, Nebraska, in 1927. Captain Ira O. Biffle, the man who taught Charles Lindbergh how to fly, piloted the flight. In 1928 it boasted 100 planes, an additional 12 hangars, more runways, taxiways and ramps, and up-to-date airfield lighting for evening flights. In 1928, 41,660 passengers used the airport flying on 14,498 flights. 1929 saw the arrival of an air traffic controller who used a flag at the end of the runway to give the all clear to pilots when it was safe to takeoff.
As a side note, the Transcontinental Air Mail Route from New York to San Francisco created navigation problems. Pilots had to use landmarks to know where they were and where they were headed. By 1924, just a year after Congress funded it, a line of giant, bright yellow concrete markers stretched from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Cleveland, Ohio. The next summer, it reached all the way to New York, and by 1929 it spanned the continent uninterrupted, the envy of postal systems worldwide. Hundreds of these markers are still remain, although without the bright yellow paint.
In just two years, Municipal Airport was recognized as the busiest in the world.
Municipal Airport, 1929
Chicago Aerial Survey Co.
In 1931, the first terminal and administration buildings were built. By 1932, the airport handled 100,847 passengers on 60,947 flights. 1936 saw the first non-stop flight to New York. The flight took four hours; today it takes about two.
In 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Municipal Airport joined the war effort. The runways saw the arrival of the largest aircraft of the time, including the B-17 “Flying Fortress.” In 1945, American Overseas, TWA and Pan American airlines initiated flights to Europe. The Cloud Room Restaurant opened in 1946. It offered diners an amazing view of the entire airfield.
United Airlines Office
5959 S. Cicero
United Airlines Office Entrance
5959 S. Cicero
A 1941 court case ordered the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad to reroute its tracks to permit new runway construction at Midway, marking the triumphant evolution of Chicago as a national transportation hub. Passenger air travel at Midway during the war years soared and reached 1.3 million by 1945. Subsequent partnerships between the city, the airlines, and new agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration helped modernize service at Midway. The airport’s south terminal served new overseas international flights and housed U.S. Customs operations.
The first scheduled around-the-world passenger flight stopped briefly at Chicago’s Municipal (later Midway) Airport on June 30, 1947, before taking off on its final leg to New York’s LaGuardia airport. The Pan American Airways flight crew and passengers (including airline executives, newspaper publishers, and public officials) were greeted by a delegation led by Mayor Martin Kennelly. According to Pan American Airways president Juan Trippe, Chicago was selected as the final stop-over point in order to highlight the city’s role as North American center for air transportation.
Also in 1947, Hertz put travelers in the driver’s seat by opening a rental car office. The next year, a new Airport Traffic Control Tower was built. The airport was renamed Midway in 1949, in honor of the hard fought Battle of Midway in the Pacific during World War II.
By 1950, Midway became home to 15 scheduled airlines. 1952 saw Midway reach the 5 million passenger mark. Today, the airport serves more than 18 million passengers annually. In the fall of 1953, Air France introduced its new Parisian service, the fastest way to get to Paris from the Midwest at the time. In the spring of 1954, BOAC – now British Airways – began service to London. The flight took 19-1/2 hours; today it takes about eight.
The April 1957 Official Airline Guide (OAG) shows 414 weekday fixed-wing departures from Midway: 83 American, 83 United, 56 TWA, 40 Capital, 35 North Central, 28 Delta, 27 Eastern, 22 Northwest, 19 Ozark, 11 Braniff, 5 Trans-Canada and 5 Lake Central. Air France, Lufthansa and REAL (of Brazil) had a few flights a week. Midway was running out of room and in any case could not handle the 707 and DC-8 jetliners that appeared in 1959; every Chicago jet flight had to use O’Hare International Airport, which had opened to the airlines in 1955. Electras and Viscounts could have continued to fly out of Midway.
In 1961, Midway had to relinquish the “World’s Busiest Airport” title. O’Hare’s capacious new terminal opened in 1962, allowing airlines to consolidate their flights. From July 1962 until the 727 appeared in July 1964 Midway’s only scheduled airline was Chicago Helicopter. United Airlines, the first airline to institute service at Midway, was now the last to move out, with its last flight departing to Toledo, Ohio, in 1962. United Airlines’ departure didn’t last long. 1964 saw United flying in and out of Midway once again with flights to and from New York.
In 1967, the City spent more than $10 million to redevelop the North Terminal. Three new concourses were added providing 28 gates, each with its own departure lounge, and three new ticket counters. 1968 saw the return of American, Delta, Eastern, Northwest, Ozark, and TWA airlines to Midway Airport thanks to the smaller planes like McDonnell Douglas DC-9, Boeing 727, and Boeing 737 which could use the smaller runways. By the end of 1968, 1,663,074 passengers passed through Midway on over 275,062 flights. That was quite a leap from 1962 when 659,649 passengers on 107,788 flights used Midway.
Source: Chicago Department of Aviation and Federal Aviation Association
Source: Chicago Department of Aviation and Federal Aviation Association
September 1971 was declared Midway Month by Mayor Richard J. Daley, a staunch supporter of the airport. On September 4th, over 50,000 people attended the festivities. 1973 saw an enormous decrease in flight s at Midway, partially due to oil and fuel shortages. All major carriers ceased operation at Midway and returned to O’Hare. Midway, once the world’s busiest, was for all intents and purposes “grounded.”
Deregulation made the biggest contribution to the aviation industry since the Wright Brothers, by opening the market to smaller airlines and discount fares. 1979 brought the arrival of the first airline created following deregulation – Midway Airlines. Using Chicago as its hub, Midway Airlines began service to Kansas City, Detroit, and Cleveland. Midway Airlines was the flagship airline for the airport till it ended operations in 1991. However it paved the way for the new discount airways which followed in the 1980’s.
In 1980, Northwest Airlines returned to Midway with flights to Minneapolis. Mayor Jane Byrne announced a $200 million development plan for Midway Airport in 1981. In 1982, the city purchased Midway Airport from the Board of Education for $16 million. Southwest Airlines began service from Midway to St. Louis with seven flights a day in 1985. In 1987, Midway celebrated its 60th anniversary.
United Airlines returned in 1987, and in 1988, U.S. Airways added planes at Midway.
In 1991, Midway Airlines declared bankruptcy and later in the year the airport ceased operations. At the time, Midway Airlines represented 72 percent of traffic coming through the airport. Many said the bankruptcy would mark Midway Airport’s demise. But the City of Chicago knew better. Thanks to increased service by Southwest Airlines, Midway Airport was quickly on the road to recovery. Its easy-to-reach location and manageable concourses quickly attracted other low-cost airlines.
1992 heralded the arrival of America West and Continental. Later that same year, Southwest Airlines signed a significant contract with the City of Chicago, increasing the use of the southwest side facility. By 1998, Southwest Airlines operated 102 flights a day. Today, Chicago is home to a reservation center, pilot and flight crew base, and maintenance facility for Southwest Airlines.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) began rapid transit Orange Line rail service to Midway in 1993, making the commute to the airport fast, easy and inexpensive, and helping reinforce Midway’s presence as Chicago’s close-in and convenient airport.
In 1996, Mayor Daley announced the historic Midway Airport Terminal Development Program, which was launched the next year. It was the largest public works project in the state. The Midway Airport Parking Garage opened in 1999, bringing covered parking to the airport for the first time. The garage, offering 3,000 hourly and daily parking spaces, is connected to the Midway Terminal Building for convenient access to ticket counters and baggage claim areas.
The 21st Century
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is the fifth busiest airport in the world, establishes Chicago as a major transportation hub, just as Midway did in the 1930’s. Midway was ranked 28th out of the 35 major airports with 249,913 takeoffs and landings in 2012. That represents a slight decrease from a total of 255,227 in 2011. At the same time, the Chicago Department of Aviation recently announced Midway had reached a milestone with the highest number of passengers in its 85-year history.
Departing passengers at Midway reached 9.67 million in 2012, compared to a previous high of 9.5 million in 2004.