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Abe Tekippe/MEDILL

Throughout 2010, Midway's on-time departures fell below the average of 29 of the nation's busiest airports.

On time…most of the time

by Abe Tekippe
Feb 24, 2011


Abe Tekippe/MEDILL

Passengers share their Midway experiences

The rise of Midway

Today, Midway ranks among the nation’s busiest airports, serving more than 17.5 million people in 2010 alone.

But this wasn’t always the case.

In fact, Midway wasn’t even called Midway when the airport opened in 1927, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Only after World War II’s Battle of Midway did the airport get its name.

“The changes at Midway have been quite dramatic,” said Aaron Gellman, a professor at Northwestern University’s Transportation Center and Kellogg School of Management. “Midway was really a very ground-level operation.”

Over the years, Midway has continued to expand its services, thanks in large part to Southwest Airlines, which helped keep the airport in business following the 1991 bankruptcy of Midway Airlines. At the time, Midway Airlines represented nearly three-fourths of the traffic coming through the airport.

“Activity at Midway really began to pick up throughout the 1990s,” said Gregg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Aviation. “In 2004, Midway’s passenger volume reached an all-time high of 19.5 million passengers.”

While the recent recession slowed business at Midway, Cunningham said the airport, the fastest-growing airport in the country in 2009, has started to see a turnaround.

“Midway has experienced a recovery and growth in passengers following some challenging times for the aviation industry as a whole,” he said. “Midway continues to be a high-demand, strong origin and destination market.”
Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest air carrier for domestic passengers, is largely at fault for Midway International Airport’s subpar on-time flight departures in 2010.

Because of Southwest’s record passenger volume last year, Midway’s on-time departures fell below the average of the nation’s busiest airports during every month in 2010, dropping to a 12-month low in December, according to the most recent report by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We certainly have dipped below the levels of on-time performance that we’d like to see from Southwest Airlines,” said Chris Mainz, a spokesman for the Dallas-based airline, which accounts for 85 percent of flight operations at Midway. “We’re not where we’d like to be.”

Midway’s on-time departures dipped below the 50 percent mark in December, with just 49.9 percent of flights leaving within 15 minutes of their scheduled departure times, the standard the report uses to distinguish an on-time flight from a delayed flight. By contrast, 67.7 percent of O’Hare flights left on time, 4.5 percentage points below the 72.2 average, according to the report.

One city official was unwilling to place all the blame on Southwest. “Other than weather conditions, we are not aware of operational issues that would have contributed to delays at Midway,” said Gregg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Aviation.

In December, Chicago received 16.2 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. The most snow that fell at one time was 5.1 inches on December 4.

But Chicago’s winter weather wasn’t the only cause of the delays.

Midway also found itself at the bottom of the list for on-time departures in June, with 64.8 of flights taking off on time, 11.5 percentage points below the 76.3 percent average, according to an earlier DOT report.

Mainz said three factors have contributed to Southwest’s struggles over the past year: weather, record numbers of connecting passengers and record numbers of overall passengers, due in part to the airline’s lower prices and “Bags Fly Free” campaign.

“We’re experiencing record load factors pretty much on a monthly basis,” Mainz said.

Mainz added that Chicago, currently the second-largest city in Southwest’s system with more than 200 daily departures, is more susceptible to delays than other cities because of its centralized location, which makes it a connection hub.

“We are carrying more passengers through Chicago than we ever have before,” Mainz said. “We have more customers traveling east to west or west to east who are using Chicago as a connecting point in their travels.”

This increase in connections can translate to an increase in delays, Mainz said, as more passengers — and their luggage — have to get off one plane and onto another in a relatively short period of time.

Last month, in response to Midway’s below-average performance, U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D–Chicago.), whose district includes Midway, wrote a letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly. In the letter, Lipinski requested information about the delays and called on the airline to improve service at the state’s second-largest airport.

“Southwest has responded that it is actively working to address and improve its on-time performance at Midway,” Nathaniel Zimmer, Lipinski’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. “Congressman Lipinski will continue to monitor the results of Southwest’s efforts and looks forward to seeing its record improve this year.”

Mainz said the airline already has several initiatives underway to improve performance in 2011.

“When and where we can, when we’re ready to go, when we have all of our customers accounted for and in their seats, we’ll try to push an aircraft earlier,” he said. “That earlier departure can help. Those minutes do add up.”

Southwest is also adjusting its schedule to allow more time during and between flights, Mainz said.

But with more customers than ever, Southwest’s slow departure times out of Midway raise the question: Can the airport, nestled in Chicago’s Southwest Side, where expansion options are limited, continue to support Southwest’s growing flight operations?

The short answer: yes.

While talks to expand O’Hare International Airport have been underway for months, Cunningham said expansion at Midway, which opened a new terminal building in 2001, isn’t necessary — at least not now.

“At O’Hare, the O’Hare Modernization Program is reconfiguring the airfield’s runway layout to reduce delays and add capacity at the airport well into the future,” Cunningham said. “At Midway, airfield capacity constraints are not a contributing factor to the on-time departure performance. In fact, Midway currently has the capacity to support further growth in operations.”

Aaron Gellman, a professor at Northwestern University’s Transportation Center and Kellogg School of Management, commended the airport’s layout.

“Today, Midway is the best it can be given the real estate constraints,” he said. “I don’t think it could have been designed any better.”

And although Southwest’s departure times are an admitted work in progress, Cunningham said the airline remains a vital part of Midway’s operations.

“We are excited about future opportunities to enhance flight operations efficiency at Midway,” Cunningham said. “Southwest has been a very important and valuable partner to the city of Chicago and is a major reason why Midway is one the nation’s premier airports for value fare.”