Economy & Business
5:27 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

Mitchell Airport Rumored to Be Courting Low-Cost International Airlines

General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee
Credit WUWM News

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich interviews Stacy Vogel Davis of the Milwaukee Business Journal.

Though Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport has seen passenger travel drop in the last couple of years, some analysts think the trend may turn.

Not only are current carriers in the market stabilizing, but new reports suggest the airport is actively trying to recruit low-cost international carriers.

Milwaukee Business Journal reporter Stacy Vogel Davis says though the overall trend has continued downward, December numbers showed a modest increase in passengers using the Milwaukee airport.

It's a reversal from several years ago, when the airport was setting records each month for passenger traffic until numbers peaked in 2010. Vogel Davis says rather than becoming the new normal, these out-of-the-ordinary numbers were the result of a years-long airfare war between several carriers in the market, including Frontier Airlines (formerly Midwest Airlines), Southwest Airlines and Airtran.

"They all wanted control...that was unsustainable," she says. "The fares were getting low and there were lots and lots of flights, more flights than Milwaukee could support."

Nowadays, Frontier Airlines has all but disappeared from the market, with only seven flights a day out of Milwaukee. Southwest and Airtran have merged, continuing to dismantle Airtran's Milwaukee hub and consolidating the number of flights being offered until a full integration later this year. Southwest now operates 40-45 flights a day including Airtran's flights.

But Vogel Davis says it looks like the cuts have settled down. Though another merger, between American Airlines and U.S. Air could affect some 10 percent of traffic in Milwaukee, she says "most of the big swings have ended now."

To return to growing numbers, Vogel Davis says the airport is focusing on its marketing strategy as a low-cost option for passengers in the norther suburbs of Chicago.

But perhaps the most successful strategy will be in its attempts to attract more low-cost international airlines to Milwaukee for its proximity to Chicago. Vogel Davis says airport officials say they have talked to "everybody they could possibly talk to" about coming to Milwaukee.

While there is a lot of speculation, Vogel Davis says there's nothing solid on what airlines might be considering the Milwaukee market. But some analysts have suggested the ultra-low-cost, Ireland-based Ryan Air, Norwegian Air and Iceland Air, often thought of as a cheap route into Europe, could be looking at Milwaukee.

"If you look at Milwaukee as very accessible to Chicago, it's very easy to get there by bus or a train or even a short flight," she says.

Milwaukee already handles international flights, though only from locations in the Western Hemisphere, such as Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Mitchell Airport will also see some personnel changes, as longtime director Barry Bateman will be retiring this spring after 30 years.