AirTran plans major expansion at Mitchell

Oct. 13--AirTran Airways is planning a major expansion at Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport after being stymied in its attempt to buy Midwest Airlines.

On Wednesday, a Milwaukee County Board committee will consider a request by AirTran to double to four the number of gates it occupies at Mitchell, which is owned by the county.

AirTran also plans to hire seven more employees in Milwaukee next month, a 20% increase in staffing, said Kevin Healy, vice president of planning for the Orlando-based carrier.

If it is successful in its bid for the four gates at Mitchell, AirTran would have larger operations only at its Atlanta hub and in Orlando and Baltimore.

AirTran "probably learned quite a bit about the Milwaukee market, having studied the Midwest deal for as long as they did," said Bob Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline consulting firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

"They may have concluded that with or without Midwest, it would be in their interest for them to grow more rapidly and perhaps use Milwaukee as a focus city."

During its pursuit of Midwest, AirTran said it eventually would add 74 daily departures and 27 new destinations from Mitchell.

Friday, Healy was coy about plans for the extra gates. Asked where service might be added, he said: "I can't tell you that. To places people want to go."

Nonstop service to the West Coast might appeal to AirTran, Mann said, because its fleet of Boeing 737 jets can easily make the flight.

Midwest has limited non-stop service to the West Coast from Milwaukee because its fleet of mostly Boeing 717s cannot make the trip, he said.

An airline typically likes to have six to eight daily flights from a gate, meaning that AirTran could have 24 to 32 flights a day if it gets four gates at Mitchell, Mann said.

AirTran has 22 flights a day from the four gates it uses at Chicago's Midway Airport.

AirTran is the third-largest carrier at Mitchell with a 7.3% market share. It has nine flights a day, serving Orlando, Atlanta, Baltimore and Las Vegas.

It has said it will expand to a dozen daily flights by the end of the year, adding service to Phoenix, Fort Myers and Tampa.

Oak Creek-based Midwest has a 55.2%, share at Mitchell. Northwest Airlines of Eagan, Minn., is No. 2 with 13.1%.

AirTran lost an unsolicited bid for Midwest earlier this year when the Wisconsin carrier agreed to be purchased by a TPG Capital, a private equity firm in Fort Worth, Texas, with Northwest having a 47% stake in the deal.

The transaction is being studied by federal anti-trust regulators.

AirTran wants four gates on the newly-opened extension of the C concourse at the north end of Mitchell's terminal.

It would move from gates 60 and 61 on the E concourse, which it shares with Northwest and Continental Express. Airport Director Barry Bateman said that when Skybus Airlines begins flying to Milwaukee Dec. 5 with service to Columbus, Ohio, it also will use a gate on the E concourse.

If AirTran's move is approved, Mitchell would be left with three unoccupied gates, Bateman said.

The matter will be considered by the County Board's Committee on Transportation, Public Works and Transit on Wednesday morning.

Bateman said he supports the proposal. Under the plan, AirTran's monthly rent would go from about $17,000 to about $23,000.

Healy said the move would be completed "before Thanksgiving."

"I don't think there is any new news here," said Scott Dickson, a senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Midwest. "They are doing a very small number of flights out of here, even with the added ones."

To see more of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.