Thriving Airport is Crucial to Milwaukee Economy: Is Mitchell on Course?

A public brawl has erupted over control of Wisconsin's busiest airfield: Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport.

Aviation experts seem hard-pressed to name a thriving metropolis anywhere that lacks a thriving airport. Global trade, it appears, gravitates toward cities served by the greatest possible abundance of airborne connections.

Boomtown Atlanta, home to such international players as Coca-Cola and Home Depot, has Hartsfield, the nation's busiest airport. Chicago, with its international finance markets, has teeming O'Hare. Houston, home to the nation's third-busiest airfield, is headquarters to no fewer than 23 Fortune 500 companies.

Little wonder, then, that a public brawl has erupted over control of Wisconsin's busiest airfield: Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport. The acrimony between Milwaukee County, which runs the airport, and a consortium of business leaders, who support creation of a regional airport authority, has thrown a spotlight on the burgeoning importance of airports as they become ever more critical to businesses with global aspirations.

"If you haven't got adequate airport capacity, you simply won't attract modern industry," said Kenneth Button, a professor of aviation economics and public policy at George Mason University.

So far, Mitchell has filled that role well, according to some prominent multinational companies that call the Milwaukee region home.

Waukesha-based GE Healthcare Technologies, a globally active division of General Electric Co., sees Mitchell as a business-friendly hub. The company, which authorized over 3,000 flights for its Milwaukee-area operations in the first quarter of 2006, relies on Mitchell for 70% of its executive air travel, mainly for domestic connections, said Ralph Strosin, general manager of GE Healthcare's sourcing and operations. The remaining 30% are largely international connections and fly mainly out of Chicago's O'Hare.

GE Healthcare has increased the number of tickets issued for Mitchell by 25% per year since 2003.

One of the primary reasons that Rockwell Automation Inc. moved its corporate headquarters to Milwaukee in 1999 from California "was frankly the Milwaukee airport and its access," said company spokesman Matthew Gonring.

Rockwell, which operates from Beijing to Berlin, doubled its use of Mitchell in the past three years as the company expanded and the economy picked up steam, he said.

Mitchell competes with Madison's Dane County Regional Airport not so much for passengers but for airline service. The Madison airport, about a fourth the size of Mitchell, is hustling to add direct connections to lure more venture fund investors and biotech executives to the state's capital.

"It's extremely competitive among airports to acquire new non-stop destinations," said Dane airport director Bradley Livingston.

In such an environment, can Mitchell, run by the board of a financially struggling county, keep growing efficiently enough to propel the Milwaukee region's economy forward?

Some political and business leaders are skeptical. Behind the uproar, however, a quiet but steady expansion is evident at the airport.

Construction crews are extending Milwaukee's existing concourses and adding gates under a $208 million expansion. The airport has a long-term plan to build an additional terminal from the ground up, bringing the number of gates to 71 from the current 42.

Still, only two of the airport's existing five runways are long enough to handle large commercial aircraft. Within 10 to 15 years, according to airport projections, the airport will need a major new runway to avoid bottlenecks and delays.

A history of growth

Apart from periodic disruptions such as the Great Depression or the 2001 terrorist attacks, Mitchell has been expanding almost non-stop since 1927, when it opened as a farm-field landing strip. In the first month of operations, Charles Lindbergh piloted his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis into Milwaukee, less than three months after its New York-to-Paris flight.

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