During this vacation travel season, a couple of million passengers can be expected to pass through Midway Airport, that wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the aeronautical equivalent of the “Little Engine That Could.”
In the 1960s and ‘70s, following the completion of O’Hare International Airport in the 1950s, Midway was headed for extinction before it was saved by the now nearly forgotten Midway Airlines. The company employed a daring formula: secondhand aircraft; discounted fares, like $99 one-way weekend specials to New York; and a CEO who spoke like a salty old tar.
“Our capacity is so small,” Irving Tague said in 1980, when Midway initiated flights to New York, “we won’t constitute more than the proverbial wart on an elephant’s behind.”
Investors were shy of backing him and his partners, and Midway was a tenuous operation out of the starting gate.
“None of us is wealthy,” Tague said when postponing the carrier’s first flights. “We have spent $1 million of our time and money. And sooner or later we will have to go to work to pay the bills.”
But the money was found, providing pilot William Curry an experience he wouldn’t have had flying for a major carrier. For Curry, a retired first officer and captain with Midway, hand-me-down aircraft had what he considered an unlikely virtue: not everything worked consistently.
Curry loved flying, and large, commercial aircraft are largely flown by autopilot systems. Those didn’t always work so well on Midway’s fleet.
“In the ‘80s, we were flying aircraft built in the ‘60s, the captain would push the Autopilot button, and it would pop back out,” Curry recalled. “I’d say, ‘I’ll fly it by hand, Captain.’ ”
Alone in the cockpit, Curry would realize his childhood dream of steering an airplane into the wild blue yonder.
Considering Midway Airport’s lack of curb appeal, it’s understandable that investors weren’t eager to risk their money on a startup based there. On Aug. 28, 1961, a Tribune reporter painted a word picture of a ghost town. Empty seats and spick-and-span tables in the snack shops. No lines at the check-in counters, and few flights either coming or going.
“We’re running an old ladies’ home,” a flight controller in Midway’s tower told the Tribune for that story.
He and his colleagues once handled up to 150 takeoffs and landings an hour. They now were “grateful for even a small private machine to enter their control area,” the Tribune wrote.
The airport’s decline had a contagious effect on neighbors.
“The nearby motels, hotels, restaurants, bars, service stations and parking lots are suffering loss of business, too. Proprietors are singing the economic blues,” the Tribune reported. “Many who worked for airlines or service groups at Midway are being transferred to O’Hare field and their families are talking about moving north, too.”
In the 1950s, Midway was the busiest airport in the United States. Aircraft then had propellers. But as they sprouted jets, Midway paid the price of its geometry. Built on Chicago’s street grid, its runways were limited to a milelong square, or about 6,500 ft.
Airlines with jet-propelled craft needed the longer runways at O’Hare, which triggered an exodus from Midway. In 1970, Mayor Richard M. Daley summoned airline presidents and, as the Tribune reported, “bluntly informed them that Midway, a $90 million facility, was being neglected.”
In 1978, when Midway serviced only two daily Delta Air Lines St. Louis flights, the Tribune headlined Tague’s proposal for remaking the Southwest Side airfield: “Midway Airport may find new life as ‘bargain basement.’ ”
Tague and his partners were betting that the Civil Aviation Board would bail out Midway Airport by getting Midway Airlines off the ground. Capitalism assumes that progress requires competition, and the CAB was getting heat from Congress, as the Tribune reported, for “refusing to allow any new airlines into the market since just after World War II.”
The CAB in 1978 approved Midway Airlines’ offer to take up the slack and operate out of Midway. Geography and O’Hare’s success — for many years it was the world’s busiest airport — favored the Southwest Side airport’s revitalization. It was closer to downtown Chicago than O’Hare, in addition to being easier to navigate. Midway Airlines’ extended an invitation with an ad headlined: “Go Midway and Kiss O’Hare goodbye.”
In addition to the swipe at O’Hare, the airline touted its low prices with a motto aimed at United Airlines, one of the Northwest Side airport’s major tenants: “Fly the wholesale skies.”
It had promotional tie-ins with Mid America Federal Savings and Avenue Bank & Loan. If they deposited $2,500, travelers could get two tickets from Midway for the price of one.
But some of its budget promotions backfired. “Penny Day” in 1980 offered flights to Cleveland for 37 cents and Kansas City for 45 cents. People who didn’t get to Midway quickly enough wound up fighting mad.
“It was supposed to be first-come, first-served,” said Ottis Gaines, who hoped to take his seven children to Detroit. “But the way they ran it was first animal in line.”
Midway grew from three DC-9 airplanes to 26 by 1984, thanks to employees who worked like kin. Family members don’t have to be asked to do chores; parents set an example for children.
“It is not unusual to see mechanics helping ramp attendants, and flight attendants get off the plane to help at the gate,’’ Midway’s President Gordon Linkon told the Tribune in 1981.
The article said that Midway pilots have been known to walk their planes picking up discarded trash between flights. ‘I pick up trash myself when I walk through the terminal,” Linkon said.
“If I brought a part to an airplane and another landed, I’d scoot over there and help unload the luggage,” Mike Carlson, a South Sider who was hired as a stock clerk in the parts storeroom and moved up through the ranks, said in an interview. He married a flight attendant. Such matches were common, many made in a greasy spoon across the street from the airport. The Midway Airlines hangout was dubbed Club Taupe, from the color of the flight attendants’ uniforms.
Once Carlson and his wife arrived late for an employees’ Christmas party. The tables were filled, and they were leaving when a woman said, “I’m the wife of the chairman. I will find you seats.”
When an airplane needed a replacement part in another city, Carlson would phone around to find one nearby. He said that once he was sent to California to purchase a McDonnell Douglas airplane. What did he know about buying an airplane with 107-foot wingspan and a $40 million price tag?
“I learned fast,” he said.
Midway Airlines’ success precipitated its downfall. Other carriers mimicked its cut-rate model, offering discount tickets. Midway was still expanding, adding cities to its schedules, even as war in the Middle East pushed up the cost of fuel. In 1990, Midway lost $139 million.
It declared bankruptcy in March 1991, and acquisition by another carrier seemed the only way out of its death spiral. Northwest Airlines was lined up as a buyer, and Carlson was assigned to stealthily inventory the parts storeroom. “Northwest Airlines wanted to know what it would get for its money,” he said.
Vintage Chicago Tribune
The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune’s archives featuring photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.
The deal with Northwest fell through, as Dawn Raetz discovered when she saw another gate attendant burst into tears. Outbound passengers on Nov. 13, 1991, were told in midair they had to find another way home. Ticketholders who showed up at Midway Airport found computers being removed and employees packing up their belongings.
Carlson recalled the final flight of three Midway airplanes over the airport. One turned off, performing the missing man salute to a fallen comrade. Fight crews, mechanics and office workers gathered on runways to watch Midway’s last rites.
To this day, many alums cherish Midway memories, much as does Capt. Curry, the pilot who disliked autopilots.
”It was,” he said, “the land at the end of the rainbow, unicorns included.”
Thanks to Capt. William D. Curry, of Greensboro, North Carolina, for suggesting this Vintage story.