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Editorial: Avoid turbulence

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 waits take off Chicago's Midway Airport as another lands.  | File photo

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 waits to take off at Chicago's Midway Airport as another lands. | File photo

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Updated: January 25, 2013 6:12AM

We wouldn’t expect pilots to come in for a landing at Midway Airport with their eyes closed.

So we hope Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council keep their eyes wide open if the city goes ahead with plans to lease Midway to private investors.

Emanuel last week said Chicago will explore leasing Midway for 40 years, an idea once championed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Chicagoans have been leery of privatization deals since the Skyway and parking meter deals dramatically drove up prices for the average motorist.

Just because the Skyway and parking meter deals soured quickly doesn’t mean a Midway plan would do so as well. And under federal law the city has to act by Dec. 31 to keep its options open. But it’s also not enough to simply claim we’ve learned our lesson from the parking meter fiasco and say the next deal will be different.

There are plenty of traps for the unwary here. Private equity is constantly looking for ways to get the public’s money, and the companies that pursue public infrastructure expect healthy profits. We’d feel more comfortable when privatization is suggested if we could see examples of private investors around the country, not the public, grousing that they got a bad deal.

City Council members, wary of the way Mayor Daley sprang the parking meter deal on them, were emailing and texting each other Friday morning, trying to learn more. But Emanuel said this won’t be a rush job. He will give the Council 30 days to examine any proposed deal, twice what’s required by ordinance, and representation on a committee reviewing it with its own independent adviser. He also would limit the deal to 40 years instead of 99, require any private operation to pay for public safety and write up a Travelers Bill of Rights to discourage price gouging.

As this moves forward, the city’s motto should be the same as a pilot’s: Safety first.

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