Midway's turnaround began in 1979 when the low-cost airline that bore the airport's name, a child of federal aviation industry deregulation, began operations with jets small enough to be accommodated by the airfield.
When Midway Airlines started service at the airport, "there were cobwebs in the terminal, and water coming through the ceiling," the carrier's chairman, David Hinson, said in a 1987 Tribune interview.
Hinson's airline ultimately expanded too aggressively and went bankrupt, but other discount carriers, particularly Southwest, kept Midway humming.
But the airport's existence was to be threatened again.
In February 1990, Mayor Richard M. Daley dropped a bombshell. Faced with the possible development of a major airport in Indiana or the far south suburbs that could compete with O'Hare, he announced plans for a new Chicago field near Lake Calumet on a site 15 times Midway's size.
The Southwest Side airport's operations would be transferred upon completion of the bigger new field, city officials said.
But Midway was destined to live on as politics, mixed with the practical problems of developing Lake Calumet, killed that project.
Well aware of the enormous economic impact of his airports, Daley decided to concentrate his efforts on expanding O'Hare, in part by adding a runway, and turning Midway into something as modern as its size would allow.
Last year, at a time when Midway's passenger volume had grown to more than 18 million a year, the mayor officiated at ceremonies marking the completion of the airport's $927 million redevelopment. In a remarkable project, the old terminal was demolished piece by piece, as a new terminal was constructed in its place, all without disrupting the airport's daily operation.
The Midway revival has brought with it a wave of new commercial development in the surrounding area.
"The airport was 'closed' for many years," Daley said Friday. "Many people were laid off, lost their jobs. This is one of the most successful, growing airports in the country ... It has been a great nucleus for the rebirth of the South and Southwest Sides."
The number of gates increased to 43 from 29 in the redevelopment project, but even the miracles of modern technology and construction could not work magic on the length of the runways.
"At O'Hare, you can make a mistake and nothing happens because you have lots and lots of room," said the former Midway Airlines pilot.
When he would land at Midway, however, he said he took special precautions. An airplane following the airport's electronic glide slope touches concrete about 1,600 feet down the 6,522-foot Runway 31 Center, he said.
He used to dip below the glide slope after getting a clear view of the field to land sooner and have the luxury of more runway in which to stop.
A shorter runway can handle safe landings without problem, "all things being equal," said Grant Brophy, director of flight safety and security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
"Then you start throwing in the 'what ifs'--what if it's a wet day, a rainy day, what if it's sleet? That changes the margin of error. The runway then becomes too short--not just in theory but in the reality of operating the aircraft."
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The first new O'Hare runway in the eight-runway configuration will not open until at least 2008, a full year later than the city's original schedule.