Don’t look out the window approaching Midway airport

The Thinker by Rodin

Chicago Midway International Airport is a scary airport. It’s best you not look out your window upon approach. It’s an airport in the middle of Chicago, butt up against residential housing with little room for error.

I’d like to say that some terrible accident is bound to happen at Midway except two major aircraft crashes have already. More are doubtless on the way, at least while they continue to allow commercial jets to fly in and out of that airport. Most recently in 2005, six-year-old Joshua Woods died when Southwest flight 1248 skidded off the runway and onto a street ringing the airport. The incident happened in a snowstorm but it appears that simple pilot error was the primary cause of the accident. The pilot either did not deploy the reverse thrusters on landing or they came on after a second attempt. In any event there was little margin for error. Southwest’s business requirements probably overruled the safer option of landing it on a nearer and longer runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

A far worse crash occurred in 1972 when United Airlines Flight 553 hit trees and roofs on West 71st Street during an aborted landing attempt. 45 people died, 43 of them on the plane. The airplane destroyed five houses and damaged three others. It killed an Illinois congressman and the wife of a prominent figure in the Watergate scandal of the time.

When you fly in and out of Midway and actually look out the window you wonder why a whole lot more accidents haven’t happened. Those were certainly my thoughts this week as I transferred between Southwest flights at Midway. There is so little margin for error, particularly for the large, hulking jets like the 737s that Southwest uses for most of its flights. Pilots want to touch down as close to the start of the runway as possible to make sure they maximize their braking distance. As a result they scream over the nearby houses, just dozens of feet above their roofs. The noise must be nearly nonstop and deafening. All the jet fumes cannot be healthy for nearby residents either. Perhaps the housing is relatively cheaper on flight paths next to Midway, but I cannot imagine anyone who has the option actually purchasing a house on these flight paths. I’d be wearing hearing protection all the time at home.

So don’t make the mistake of looking out the window on approach, like I did. The probability of not making a safe landing is, of course, extremely small. If you are the nervous type you will feel much safer with a connecting flight at O’Hare International instead. In spite of the safety issue, I can see the airport’s appeal to airlines like Southwest, which at times appears to own the airport due to its oversize presence there. Smaller than O’Hare, it is less likely to have problems with congestion, and Southwest is all about running flights on time. While smaller than O’Hare, it is hardly a tiny airport. It has two concourses. My connecting flight yesterday arrived at a far end A gate. I had to reach a far end B gate to get my flight back to Washington Dulles. It took more than ten minutes to get between them.

Midway has been spiffed up a bit to compete with its shinier siblings, but it still feels quite working class. It does have a food court, but not a large one. I needed to find lunch at Midway, which is quite a challenge if you must avoid carbohydrates and fat. In fact it is close to impossible, and I was saved only by the presence of a small shop that sold salads in Concourse B. Otherwise the food was either greasy or sugary, or sometimes both. It’s no wonder that we have an obesity epidemic when those trying to avoid these foods have so few options.

I like flying Southwest but I think that in the future I will just avoid Midway. When that next accident occurs, and it probably won’t take too long given all the traffic the airport receives, I don’t want to be on that plane.