Midway seen as likely to hit wall; Report predicts capacity problem

The federal government on Tuesday placed Midway Airport on a watch list of U.S. airports that are steadily losing their ability to add more flights.

The Southwest Side airport, increasingly popular among travelers attracted to Midway's abundance of low-cost airlines, is expected to become capacity-constrained between 2015 and 2025, according to a new analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The impending crunch means severe flight delays would become a daily routine at landlocked Midway, just as they now are on many days at O'Hare International Airport, which is at the bottom of the list of U.S. airports for on-time performance.

"Midway will benefit somewhat from the next-generation air-traffic control system and all kinds of new avionics, but clearly we know that a lot more cannot be done and some choices will have to be made," said a high-ranking FAA official in Washington.

Midway served an average of 51,694 passengers a day in 2006, up from 42,822 passengers in 2000, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Daily takeoffs and landings remained stable at about 800 flights through the period.

Chicago's plans to build new runways at O'Hare "may help offset some of the additional activity forecast for Midway," the FAA report said. "But additional solutions may be needed as well, including a new airport that is now being considered" in Will County near Peotone, the report said.

The FAA assessment did not identify the Chicago metropolitan area as needing additional aviation capacity this year, because of available runway capacity at smaller airports. But the report made several assumptions in predicting an adequate supply of air service into the future for Chicago-area travelers.

The report took it for granted that Chicago's $15 billion O'Hare expansion -- which is behind schedule and over budget -- would be completed by 2013 on the city's original timetable. The first new O'Hare runway, part of a total realignment of the airfield, is expected to open in late 2008. But city officials offer no timeline for completion of the whole project, which is only partially paid for.

In addition, the FAA report presumed that Chicago Rockford International Airport and Gary-Chicago International Airport would serve as secondary commercial passenger airports in the Chicago region, along with Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, over at least the next several decades. But no airlines currently provide regular service to Gary, and Rockford has only a couple of flights a day along with some charter service (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).

The FAA review of airports and passenger demand in metropolitan areas through 2025 concluded that Chicago's effort to expand O'Hare -- along with runway projects and construction of new airports in cities on the East and West Coasts -- are vital to serving the needs of the national airspace system over the next 20 years.

"By 2025, cities like Atlanta, Las Vegas, Chicago and San Diego are going to have to risk the lost revenue, lost business and lost appeal that comes with chronic airport delays or they're going to have to consider building new airports," U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in Washington.

Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Phoenix also were included in the list of cities that must begin planning for increasing numbers of air travelers, Peters said.