(MCT) — Chicago offered a peek and a taste Tuesday of an upcoming $26.2 million makeover of the international terminal at O'Hare International Airport.
The city and its redevelopment contractor promised "sophisticated world-class dining and retail,'' yet they served up what seems more like higher-end food-on-the-go and the usual duty-free shopping along with several uniquely Chicago offerings.
A total of 15 new dining and retail brands are in the plan. Changes include a new food court and a spa offering massages and salon services, plus new passenger amenities ranging from a streamlined security checkpoint to updated restrooms and plenty of electrical outlets for passengers to charge cell phones and other devices.
Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises will make its debut at an airport with four restaurants when the O'Hare International Terminal 5 overhaul, led by Westfield Concession Management, rolls out in phases next year.
The city awarded Westfield, a major developer of shopping malls and airport concessions, a 25-year contract last year to manage concessions in Terminal 5. Elsewhere at the airport, some retail enhancements have been made in the domestic terminals in recent years, although comprehensive reviews of concessions at both O'Hare and Midway Airport are under way, city aviation officials said.
Chef Rick Bayless, who already operates two popular Mexican restaurants in O'Hare's domestic terminals, will open Tortas Frontera in Terminal 5, featuring a menu with ingredients gathered from local farms.
Jewelry and other luxury items will be sold by designers Michael Kors, Salvatore Ferragamo, Emporio Armani and Bvlgari, according to Westfield, which operates concessions at 10 U.S. airports.
The upgrades mark the first overhaul of Terminal 5 since it opened in 1993.
"This is a day that is long overdue for O'Hare International Airport and specifically for Terminal 5," Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said at an event previewing the new food, beverage and retail offerings.
One of the city's major goals for the project is to maximize revenues to the city to the tune of at least $4.8 million a year, Andolino said.
Currently, 95 percent of the dining and retail options in Terminal 5 are located before passengers pass through the security checkpoint, creating a disincentive for passengers to buy food before boarding planes. That will change dramatically under the plan being carried out by Westfield, said Dominic Lowe, the company's executive vice president.
In addition, the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint in Terminal 5 will be redesigned to improve efficiency, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.
All departing passengers will flow through a duty-free store, operated by Dufry, after clearing the new security checkpoint, officials said.
Andolino singled out the terminal's restrooms as among the worst aspects of the 19-year-old facility, saying the modernization will result in washrooms that are similar to those found in luxury hotels.
She said the project will fulfill Mayor Rahm Emanuel's "vision to transform the terminal into a world-class experience.''
While the Terminal 5 redevelopment probably will be a welcome improvement to most international travelers, it's doubtful the outcome will match the adventures that the most discriminating and elite travelers enjoy at world-class airports in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. In the 2012 passenger satisfaction survey of the world's top airports conducted by Skytrax, no U.S. airports placed in the top 20.
Airports in Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Beijing were the top five in the Skytrax survey. But travelers on layovers also rave about the Ferrari World theme park next to Abu Dhabi International Airport and the over-the-top lounges at Dubai International Airport, which is not far from a mall that features an indoor ski hill.
Still, "I think you have to give a lot of credit to Rosie (Andolino) for what she has done here at Terminal 5,'' said Aaron Gellman, an airport and airline expert at Northwestern University. "I think this is going to be the best they can do with one of the lousiest buildings in the airline industry firmament.''
Asked why Terminal 5 is so bad, Gellman said the facility is uncomfortable and poorly laid out.
"You ever come in at the end gate? You don't want to, because of the long walk and there are no moving walkways,'' Gellman said.
Guests who enjoyed the free feeding frenzy at the terminal Tuesday offered no complaints.
"The spa services and the other improvements are definitely going to step it up,'' said Jessica Roy, a sales manager with Chicago-based Orbitz travel service.
Twenty-four of the 50 airlines that serve O'Hare operate in Terminal 5, according to the Aviation Department. But of the more than 67 million passengers who passed through O'Hare in 2011, only slightly more than 1 million used Terminal 5, according to department figures.
Chicago Aviation Partners, the company that previously had the Terminal 5 contract, filed a lawsuit last year contending that Westfield was selected through a bidding process that violated state law and that Westfield will shortchange the city by tens of millions of dollars. The suit is still in the courts.