Change is a beautiful thing.
Nearly two decades have passed since the opening of international terminal 5 at Chicago O’Hare airport (ORD), and a makeover has been long overdue. Last week, the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) and Westfield Concession Management unveiled plans for a $26.2 million redevelopment project to improve the user experience for travelers passing through the international terminal at O’Hare, scheduled for completion in fall 2013.
The project was approved by the city council in 2011, along with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s support, and calls for a 25-year contract with the Westfield Group, which is one of the world’s largest retail property groups and specializes in airport shopping. Aside from the $26.2 million invested in refurbishing the terminal, the deal also guarantees the city at least $5.1 million annually in rent, assuming that certain specified passenger volumes are met.
Approximately twenty-four international airlines fly into Chicago O’Hare’s international terminal each day, offering flights to over 40 destinations in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Of the over 1.5 million travelers passing through O’Hare each week, roughly 8.6% of them travel on an itinerary involving transfer through the international terminal, according to data compiled by CAPA Centre for Aviation.
For the most part, the customer experience is fairly pleasant and hassle-free for travelers transiting through one of O’Hare’s four numbered terminals – 1, 2, 3 and 5 – which contain 9 lettered concourses and 182 jetways in total. Terminal 1 houses the majority of operations for Chicago-based United Airlines, the largest carrier at ORD in terms of passengers carried. Terminal 3 is occupied mostly by American Airlines and its regional affiliates, the second largest carrier at O’Hare, and the other major domestic US and Canadian airlines fly out of Terminals 2 and 3. All three buildings are inter-connected by passenger walkways.
The 21 common-use gates at international terminal 5, however, are housed under a different roof from the others and requires a separate security checkpoint. While this facilitates better throughput to process and screen international passengers departing from O’Hare, this methodology does essentially “entrap” these travelers into a single space in the terminal without much room to roam around.
Of course, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the terminal was a charming destination to inhabit in and of itself. Sadly, that isn’t so much the case: of all four major terminals, the international one fares the worst in terms of layout, design and user-friendliness, and offers customers a very limited array of diversions and amenities before a long-haul flight.
Perhaps the most common complaints involves dining and retail: currently, the majority of options available to customers are only located before security checkpoints, requiring passengers few opportunities to fill-up before their flights (unless they are willing to exit and re-clear security at a later juncture). The choices are also fairly minimal; most of the dining offerings consist of fast-food chains, such as McDonalds, Gold Coast Dogs, Pizzeria Uno, Windy City Yogurt, etc, and the only sit-down establishment is an unnamed bar.
Post security, amenities are limited to three basic Duty Free shops, three Hudson News stands, two bars (which close at 9PM) and one coffee shop. Beyond that, there are a few airline lounges offered exclusively to passengers with valid access, but not much else. As such, its a pretty dismal customer experience for the majority of the traveling public, which explains why T5 presently ranks so poorly in customer satisfaction surveys.
Furthermore, it’s highly underwhelming for a city that boasts such a vibrant culture and also draws upon a rich mix of diverse and ethnic communities that makeup Chicago’s character. To compound the inconsistency, the international terminal is very out-of-sync with the styles that have been incorporated in the other domestic terminals at O’Hare, which offer trendy restaurants such as the Wicker Park Sushi Bar or La Tapenade Mediterranean Cafe, and retail stores such as InMotion Entertainment, Mont Blanc and Techshowcase, among others.
The other terminals are also replete with art and decor showcasing the City of Chicago and bearing flags from various nations, adding a lively dimension to elevate the often-stressful experience of flying and moving through congested airports. Conversely, T5’s long and drab corridors are fairly desolate and empty, lacking vibrancy to get customers fired up for an exotic journey to faraway lands.
As part of the renovations, over a dozen new dining and retail brands, as well as passenger amenities, will be added to Terminal 5. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint will be redesigned with new lighting, signage and fixtures to process passenger flows more efficiently. After security, all departing passengers will flow through a new European-style pass-through duty free store, operated by Dufry, a global duty free company. This concept, pioneered by BAA Airports Limited, allegedly increases consumer spend since every passenger must pass through these channels before heading towards their gates. According to the press release, the new duty free shopping program will link Chicago’s Magnificent Mile shopping district to Terminal 5, featuring stand-alone luxury shops from popular designers such as Bvlgari, Michael Kors, Salvatore Ferragamo and Emporio Armani.
With respect to food and beverage, the new terminal will bring together a mix of various dining options ranging from grab-and-go eateries to sit-down locations, providing both healthy and hearty selections for customers. Included in the new overhaul for T5 will be award-winning chef Rick Bayless’ popular Tortas Frontera Mexican restaurant , which is renowned for using ingredients sourced from local farms throughout the Midwest, as well as Italian restaurant Tocco, famous for their Neapolitan-style pizza, Natural Break, which offers a health-infused menu, Local Headlines Bar, and chic Intelligentsia Coffee.
Another cool addition will be Chicago-based restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which will introduce four local restaurant concepts into the terminal as well, including the popular River North restaurant and nightclub Hub 51, Urban Olive, Big Bowl and Wow Bao, offering cuisines ranging from Sushi to Mediterranean to burgers and everything in between.
In addition to aligning its retail options with the rest of the airport by adding in stores such as Swiss watchmaker Swatch, terminal 5 will also add in Lincoln Park-based Vosges Haut Chocolat and a new XpressSpa, which will provide massage services and salon treatments for transiting passengers.
With new airlines arriving in O’Hare next year such as Qatar Airways, it is very likely that international passenger at O’Hare will continue to grow and thrive, which all the more merits the big changes ahead at T5. The City of Big Shoulders will indeed be able to promote itself as a quintessential global gateway to the US with a far greater sense of pride upon completing these changes.
Update: Visit Westfield’s new website to see more of the completed renovation.