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.


More recently, Mitchell has grown in ways that favor business travelers as well as corporations seeking sites in the Midwest for expansion or relocation.

MKE, as baggage tags identify the airport, has increased both the number of daily departures (231) and the number of cities with non-stop service (54) in a comeback from the global airline shock that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.

From 1995 to 2004, the number of departing passengers at Mitchell rose at an annual 2.8% rate, outstripping the 2.1% national average. Last year a record 7.27 million passengers moved through the terminal - when both arrivals and departures are counted - up from 6.1 million two years earlier.

"Milwaukee is on a roll," said C. Barry Bateman, Mitchell's airport director. "The more non-stops you have, the more passengers come, which increases demand."

Mitchell's long-term plan foresees steady increases in passenger traffic at least through 2021.

Bateman spoke early this month in his office, where his once-panoramic view of the runways is obscured behind a temporary corrugated-aluminum structure that zigzags across the tarmac and services flights with provisional gates.

Asked if Mitchell is a business-friendly airport, he digs out a table that ranks the nation's 100 biggest airports. Milwaukee, it shows, punches above its weight in terms of what matters most to business travelers. While Milwaukee ranks 50th nationally in passenger volume, it rises to No. 34 when ranked by the number of non-stop cities served and frequency of flights - just narrowly behind Reagan Washington National Airport (No. 30) and Chicago's Midway (No. 31).

Supporters of keeping Mitchell under county control point to its steady growth as a primary reason not to tamper with it.

"Hostile takeover," charged Supervisor James White, the head of the County Board's transportation committee, after state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) introduced a bill in Madison last month that would transfer control from the county to a new regional authority. The bill's sponsors acted in secrecy, White and several other infuriated County Board members said, in an attempt to take the airport away from the county without a County Board vote.

But the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a leading business lobby group, has for two decades championed proposals for a depoliticized airport authority.

Oak Creek-based Midwest Airlines, which controls half the flights at Mitchell, and Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines, the airport's No. 2 carrier, both support a single-purpose airport authority outside county control.

In a post-Sept. 11 era that has presented airlines with unprecedented challenges, nearly every major U.S. carrier continues to post losses. Fuel prices have tripled in the past five years, making cost-effective operation of airports critical. That is even more difficult, business interests contend, when an airport is staffed by county employees who receive health care and pension benefits that soon will equal 70 cents for every dollar they are paid in wages. Those benefits exceed "our company's or most private companies'," said Midwest Vice President Carol Skornicka.

Supporters of a regional authority also argue that about half of the nation's top 100 airports have switched to single-purpose governance structures that are "consistently more efficient and more responsive," Skornicka said.

The International Air Transport Association, a global airline trade group, has argued that airport costs have become a competitive issue everywhere. "The air transport industry can no longer afford archaic airport business models," IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement.

Further, MMAC president Tim Sheehy says the county often uses cash flow from the airport to buttress its own budget.

"The citizens of Milwaukee ought to know that the county is on such shaky grounds that it uses the airport for its financing," Sheehy said.

County officials don't dispute that they might need to rely on short-term loans from the airport to cover county operating expenses - which they have done in the past. Separately, the county charges the airport about $10 million a year for legal, accounting and police services that the airport could procure less expensively, Stone and the MMAC argue.

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