Imagine a new Chicago airport. It could have a shopping arcade with a big used-book store and a little museum, maybe describing the history of aviation. How about a full-service bank and work spaces for executives on the go. Maybe a barbershop and shoe-shine parlor.

Imagine this airport having a clean, safe parking garage conveniently located just across a skywalk from the terminal, with low parking fees, say $4 a day. Imagine this airport being small enough that you could drive to the garage, park, walk to the terminal, check in, and walk to the farthest gate in less than 20 minutes.

This ideal airport will have to have plenty of nonstop flights on major airlines to major cities, but it should also offer trips to smaller cities because O’Hare has been cutting back on those. Flights will come and go on time, unlike at O’Hare, where only 84 percent of departures and 79 percent of arrivals were on time last fall. Best of all, the third airport could have lower fares, say 10 to 20 percent lower.

It seems reasonable to place this airport somewhere in the northern section of the state, considering that the more affluent and more frequently flying people live north of the city. True, the northern part of the state doesn’t need a jobs project like the south end does, but the logic of spending billions on an airport to create jobs is questionable in today’s retrenching economy anyway.

Of course, that would place this new airport considerably farther from downtown than O’Hare or Midway is. It might take two hours to drive from the Loop, an hour and a half from the north side, or an hour from Lake Forest. Business travelers on expense accounts would probably continue to use O’Hare or Midway. But these people represent only about half of O’Hare’s business, and much less than that of Midway’s.

Imagining a new airport is sort of like carrying coals to Newcastle. Experts say flying will not greatly increase in the foreseeable future. Julius Maldutis, an aviation specialist with Salomon Brothers in New York, says, “I’m skeptical of a need for any additional airport in the U.S., since there has been virtually no growth in air travel since 1987.”

Even if some economic miracle were to produce more flying customers, flying probably won’t increase significantly if high-speed trains get moving. Amtrak already carries more passengers on its New York-Washington shuttle than any airline, according to an Amtrak spokesman. And it is planning high-speed train service for a variety of other local markets.

Kenneth L. Bird, president of the Illinois Association of Railroad Passengers, estimated last year that for the price of a new airport, a high-speed rail system could be built that would serve every major city in the midwest. To ignore such forecasts could lead to the aviation equivalent of the 80s office-building boom that has left a glut of empty offices in every major city.

Such dire predictions are disputed by the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is working hard to convince the General Assembly and the federal government that there is a need for a third major Chicago-area airport. Suhail al Chalabi, a consultant to IDOT who did the airport demand forecasting for the state, says that traffic at O’Hare increased heavily last year, nearly to the airport’s capacity. He attributes the gain to an increased number of transfers at the nation’s busiest hub, not an overall increase in air traffic. According to Chicago aviation commissioner David Mosena, O’Hare is not anywhere near capacity. But he also says plans are under way for a new runway to increase capacity. Obviously, he’s anticipating more growth than O’Hare can now comfortably handle.

Which is to say (1) we need another airport to supplement O’Hare and Midway and (2) we shouldn’t build one. So what’s the answer? Simple. That imaginary airport already exists. In Milwaukee.

Recently renovated and expanded, General Mitchell International Airport, on the southern outskirts of Milwaukee, is just as I’ve described our ideal airport. It’s accessible via a roadway off I-94 that runs right into a clean, safe, $4-a-day parking garage. The walk from the garage to the terminal to the farthest gate–passing by a lovely shopping arcade and the Mitchell Gallery of Flight–is just 15 minutes. An executive work station offers hookups for computers, plenty of phones, conference rooms, and a fax machine. A country store that sells Wisconsin cheeses and sausages reminds me of the duty-free stores at the Amsterdam airport. There are three travel agencies in the arcade and six car rental services in the terminal, with the cars just next door.

The architecture of the terminal is industrial modern, with a high domed glass ceiling in the arcade graced by a large Calder mobile. On the wall beside the moving sidewalk is a simple, elegant neon sculpture, much more subdued than Helmut Jahn’s garish moving lights at O’Hare. At the intersection of the concourse is a lovely, bright lobby with plenty of seating, a deli, a news and gift shop, and a pub.

Mitchell has a higher rate of on-time arrivals and departures than O’Hare. There are flights operated by all the major airlines except Southwest, with 187 nonstop departures every day to all major destinations, plus flights to many smaller cities, and lower fares for most flights, presumably because no single airline dominates the rest. On United, it costs less to board any flight in Milwaukee, fly to O’Hare, and then proceed to a final destination than to board the same flight in Chicago. Mitchell is the 53rd busiest among about 5,000 publicly owned airports in the nation.

“Milwaukee?” you’re probably screeching. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not driving all the way to Milwaukee to take a plane. I don’t care how beautiful or convenient the airport is. Or how much money I would save.” But driving to Milwaukee to catch a flight may not be as crazy as it sounds.

Milwaukee’s airport opened in 1927, the same year Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. It had one airline, two cinder runways, and a few flights–mostly mail runs–each day. Passengers who flew those early airlines sat on the mailbags. The pilot rode in an open cockpit and watched the ground to see where he was going; planes didn’t have radios.

As air travel grew in popularity, Milwaukee’s airport kept pace. By 1929, 15-passenger planes were flying out of Milwaukee. In 1940 the WPA finished a new terminal, and in 1941 the airport was renamed for General William “Billy” Mitchell, a Milwaukee native who was one of the foremost advocates of air travel in its earliest days.

During World War II the airport was used to train pilots, and after the war it was a camp for German prisoners.

Over the years Milwaukee gradually expanded its airport, building longer runways to accommodate jet planes and in 1955 an international terminal that Frank Lloyd Wright praised for its simplicity and sense of space. But by the 70s, like most other small airports in the region, it was eclipsed by O’Hare, which by 1961 was already the world’s busiest airport, running more than 1,000 flights a day. Today Mitchell has 374 flights a day; O’Hare has about 2,400. It also has huge crowds, long walks to the gate, long lines at the ticket windows, long walks to the baggage claim, long waits to retrieve luggage, and flight delays. The plans to bring in larger planes and build an additional runway at O’Hare will likely bring more crowds, more waiting, more hassles.

Mitchell got a big boost in 1984 with the arrival of Midwest Express Airlines, which, with nonunion personnel, offered lower prices than O’Hare to major markets and superb service for all passengers, double-size leather seats, good food, all the wine you can drink, and coffee served in real mugs. Today, Midwest has 25 percent of Mitchell’s business, with nonstop flights to about 41 cities.

Chicago’s first airport, Midway, originally called Chicago Municipal Airport, opened in 1925 but was also eclipsed by O’Hare. In 1932, Munie, as it was called, was the busiest airport in the country, serving all the major airlines. But the advent of jet planes, which required longer runways than Midway had, meant that gradually all the airlines moved to O’Hare. Midway had a small resurgence in 1968 after a $10 million renovation, but after cutbacks during the recession and the oil crisis of the 70s it became almost a ghost town. It had another resurgence in the early 80s with the growth of Midway Airlines and other small low-cost airlines. Jay Franke, consultant to the Transportation Center at Northwestern University and former aviation commissioner for Chicago, says that Midway’s future lies with “vacationers going to the major vacation spots and businesspeople going to the secondary markets who don’t want to pay O’Hare prices.” Either way, they still have to put up with Midway’s general grunginess.

Ten years ago, even as O’Hare was being expanded and rebuilt, talk started to circulate in Chicago political circles, particularly among Republicans, about building a third airport. At first the idea was to relieve congestion and noise at O’Hare. But when politicians linked the airport project to the idea of job creation and economic development, the talk got serious. Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered his Department of Aviation to begin studies to build a third airport. Several sites were considered, and the Lake Calumet area was finally selected as the community that could profit most handsomely from the construction of a major airport.

Unfortunately for Daley, he had trouble selling his plan to thousands of area residents and businesses. Many of them were longtime small-home owners without the ability to find comparable housing elsewhere. Their problems would probably have been overlooked in the name of economic development had Daley had the requisite clout with the legislature and Republican governor James Edgar to win the yearlong battle. Finally, in what appeared to be a fit of pique, he tossed the idea out and decided instead to expand and improve Midway and O’Hare.

Not wanting to seem a spoilsport, Edgar came up with his own plan for an airport in the far south suburb of Peotone, which had been considered as a potential site in the mid-80s. That plan is still on the books, though it has found little support in either Illinois or Washington. The governor allocated $2 million of state money to do a study of the Peotone site after the Federal Aviation Administration pulled out of the project. A spokesman for the FAA told me that it would not get involved until “there is consensus among the three states–Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana–and the mayor and the governor. They don’t have anything like that yet.”

Using Milwaukee’s airport is not exactly a new idea. A 1986 FAA study, in which Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and the city of Chicago participated, suggested that Milwaukee already served as a third airport for Chicago. It also saw a need for an additional airport in the southern region, explains Suhail al Chalabi. Several sites were recommended, including Gary and Peotone. Chicago, under Mayor Harold Washington, dissented, saying there was no need for another airport.

The report also pointed out that in order for a new airport to avoid interfering with O’Hare’s operation, it would have to be situated at least 62.3 miles south of O’Hare, 75 miles north, 95 miles west, or 140 miles east. “The real impact of the FAA report–if there is to be a third airport–is to make a stronger case for expanding Milwaukee’s airport, which is already there and already in the national airspace grid,” read a 1987 editorial in the Chicago Tribune. “[This] will [not] please those state and local officials and Republican legislators who have fed the third-airport idea. It’s been a convenient issue to mollify voters agitated by O’Hare, just as it’s been convenient for them to ignore the fact that O’Hare is not going away–third airport or not. The difference now is that it’s harder to argue for a new airport, and harder to ignore reality.” But Daley and Edgar were still arguing for a new airport.

Jay Franke grew up in Milwaukee. He’s been following the airport debate his whole life. “The Milwaukee Journal was editorializing when I was ten years old–30 years ago–about how the airport should get its act together, how awful it was to have to go to O’Hare. Well, you might say the marketplace has spoken. You can say that the marketplace is biased for several reasons, but there it is. Milwaukee is still just a spoke in the wheel, and that kind of service can be very good and very economical and very extensive. The best and least expensive service in the country may well be had in places like Springfield, Missouri, or Milwaukee. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the air service at Milwaukee, but there’s an underlying question about whether the airport is purely a service to the local economy or whether it drives the local economy. There was widely received wisdom in the 80s that airports actually created wealth. In major hub operations like O’Hare it obviously does, but in the vast majority of airports I think the airport is more a consequence than a cause. Economists call airports derived demand. It’s not like a factory.”

Most of the talk about a third airport in Chicago has precisely to do with creating wealth. “Absolutely,” says Franke. “And there’s a fundamental tension in the discussion. There are people who use that argument to justify building a new airport. And in the Chicago region, you can make a credible argument that the new airport will, by attracting business from other places in the country, increase the Chicago region’s share of national wealth, as O’Hare does. Certainly a large part of the rationale for the Lake Calumet airport had to do with developing that area. But to be completely rational about airport development, it would make sense to expand O’Hare, but you can’t do that for a variety of reasons. So you’re immediately off the track of pure rationality when you start building a new airport in Chicago. You’re not doing the economically or technologically optimal thing.”

But without a new airport, will Chicagoans be willing to drive all the way to Milwaukee? C. Barry Bateman, Mitchell Airport’s director, thinks so. “When you compare total door-to-plane time for people in the northern part of Illinois, the time to O’Hare and Milwaukee is competitive,” he told me. He recently managed to persuade the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to fund a $125,000 advertising and public-relations campaign to draw more business travelers from Illinois. Based on a 1992 count of Illinois license plates in the garage, only 3 percent of Mitchell’s passengers are from Illinois. “Hey, listen,” Bateman says, “that’s a 100 percent increase over the year before. We think this can be done.”

Bateman believes the $100 million renovation and expansion of the airport that he has overseen during the last ten years will pay off. During that time the number of passengers has increased by about 34 percent. Now, Bateman says, “We again have a beautiful airport that people will eventually really appreciate.” He is expecting Mitchell to exceed capacity in 11 or 12 years, the time it takes to plan and build the new runway the Milwaukee County Board has authorized.

“We have to add more nonstop flights to major markets–people really don’t like to change planes–but the fact that we offer flights to the smaller cities is becoming a major asset for us,” Bateman adds. O’Hare has been steadily canceling flights to small cities to make way for higher profit transcontinental and international flights. But Milwaukee faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma. The more demand there is for nonstop flights, the more the airlines will offer them. On the other side, the demand can’t be there until people begin to see Mitchell as a real alternative to O’Hare. As part of its campaign to draw Illinois customers, there are now billboards on I-94 between Milwaukee and O’Hare that say, “Traffic conditions, O’Hare jammed–use alternate airport, Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.