Sunday, April 14, 2013

MKE airport decline traces right back to Walker

Noticed the Journal-Sentinel article on the lower amount of flights and competition at Mitchell Airport. What we thought was going to be a growing site, between high needs in Milwaukee and the desire for a third airport to serve the north suburbs of Chicago, is now shriveling up, and becoming dominated by one airline.
A total of 7.5 million passengers passed through Mitchell in 2012, compared with 9.5 million in 2011 and nearly 10 million in 2010, when AirTran and Frontier had hubs here and Southwest was operating its first full year at the airport.

Barring, say, Delta deciding to pick a fight with market share leader Southwest here - and no one is saying that is anything more than hypothetical - the commercial air service we have now is probably what we're going to have for the foreseeable future, market watchers say.
Now some of this is due to consolidation in the industry, and Milwaukee was especially affected by the merger of Southwest and AirTran in early 2011, as both airlines were competing against each other in Milwaukee at the time. Since the merger went through, the article says that merged Southwest now has more than half of the flights in Milwaukee, with Delta a solid second, and Frontier all but packing up from town after the airline formerly known as Midwest decided not to keep Milwaukee as a hub last May, cutting an estimated 450 jobs in the process.

Things are a whole lot different at Mitchell than they were in Sept. 2010, when then-County Executive Scott Walker was bragging about overseeing "the fastest-growing airport in America." And it was trademark Walker policies and cronyism that can help explain this boom-and-bust at Mitchell. Remember, it was Walker's County Executive's office that signed off on allowing AirTran to expand its footprint in Milwaukee in the first place, right around the time AirTran announced its sponsorship of Walker's campaign promotion
Harley Ride around Wisconsin.
Sure makes you wonder if the same kind of deal was offered to Frontier, and they either turned it down, or they didn't offer enough cash.

We do know this, Walker was sure glad to act like an AirTran shill when out on the road on his bike. And look who's part of the pit crew! None other than convicted criminal Tim ("He Worked for Scotty but Chose to Break the Law on His Own") Russell!

By allowing the airline that sponsored his little campaign stunt, Walker let AirTran have a better chance at expansion and survival, and hurt Frontier's chances at the same time. It also made AirTran a much more inviting prospect for Southwest to buy, with more assets to gain, and the ability to dominate the Milwaukee market. As a result, the J-S story says 3/4 of the passengers at Mitchell Field in December 2012 flew either Southwest or Delta, and while Milwaukee's fares are still competitive, this type of oligopoly here and in the rest of the nation has led to higher fares.
The average domestic round-trip fare at Mitchell in the third quarter of 2012 was $317, according to the most recent government figures available. That compares with a national average of $367. In a ranking of the top 100 airports in the nation, Milwaukee's airfares were 82nd-lowest in the third quarter.  
At the start of 2010, Mitchell's average round-trip fare was $250, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data.     
"Back when we had 12 airlines, competition was great and the airfares were lower," [Airport Director Barry] Bateman said. "What was a $250 round trip fare is now $400 round trip."
And oh yeah, being 44th in the U.S. for job growth and 47th in wage growth isn't exactly going to make people want to dig in their pockets and take trips, either for business or pleasure. In fact, the only thing I could see helping Mitchell's numbers in the near future is that this February, March and April has had such crappy weather that people might be hopping flights out of town just to escape this gloom and cold. It sure won't be our economy doing it. So the decline at Mitchell is yet another example of how Scott Walker's short-term, "do everything for the gain of me and my campaign contributors" mentality has hurt Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin long-term. There's no question in my mind that Walker signed off on AirTran's expansion as a quid pro quo kickback, and to show that he stood for "pro-growth" policies in preparation for his 2010 governor's run. After he was elected, he couldn't care less what happened to the airport's prospects or the effect on services for Milwaukee-area fliers, because he was off to his next job in Madison, where he could get even bigger contributions and get even bigger kickbacks from corporations.

And now the same pattern is repeating in Wisconsin, with the same failing results, and with Walker already caring more about his next job (running for president and/or being a Sarah Palin-style professional grifter) than performing his current one. We've already seen some of this manifest itself in the mining bill giveaway and the budget provisions funneling taxpayer money to voucher schools, and you can bet it will continue. Because the failure of Walker's management in Milwaukee over Mitchell Field should be Exhibit A on why you need to keep an eye on any deals this guy is trying to push through in his last 21 months in office.

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