Yes, We Have an International Airport

Few people know it, but Mitchell offers direct flights to Toronto, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and four Mexican destinations.

By - Apr 29th, 2015 02:51 pm
General Mitchell International Airport

General Mitchell International. Photo from facebook.

Early on the morning of April 2nd, Holy Thursday, I got on the Green Line bus from my neighborhood stop in Milwaukee heading toward the airport while it was still dark. Checking in for my flight took seconds. I was among many happy passengers – a family from Brookfield, a large group wearing identical neon green t-shirts – and under the guidance of a cheery captain who encouraged us. ”I hope you brought your swimming suits!” Three hours and 20 minutes later we landed in Mexico.

There is something more miraculous about the miracle of flight when rather than landing at LaGuardia or Philadelphia, you land directly in Cancun, in a different country, overlooking the Caribbean.

That part was easy, too. Cancun is a massive operation, where customs usually takes just minutes and everybody is friendly. Around me ambitious tourists bought cold beer and margaritas while they waited for dozens of vans to shuttle them to their resorts along the crescent of bright sun and white sand beaches.

Buses radiate to towns all over the flat, lightly wooded, Yucatan peninsula, and my second class bus passed through towns like Chemax and Dzitas and on the way toward Izamal, the Yellow City. In Milwaukee I paid my bus fare with an electronic M•CARD. In Mexico during stops vendors come aboard the bus to sell water, popcorn, and homemade peanut palanqueta candies. One day it was 60 degrees warmer than it was in Milwaukee.

Izamal. Photo by Frank Martinez.

Izamal. Photo by Frank Martinez.

Izamal is striking because every building in the town center is painted the same goldenrod yellow, with white trim. I walked one block from the bus station to the main plaza, which connects to steps that lead up to the San Antonio convent where Holy Thursday evening mass had just started, with standing room only. That morning I was riding the bus in Milwaukee, and now I was in another world, another culture, where the Passion of Jesus became a colorful celebration. The priest ceremonially washed the feet of parishioners, and after mass led a silent procession around the enormous dark courtyard.

Next to the convent, teenagers dressed as Roman soldiers chased Jesus around the Plaza Zamná. They used their whips. They laughed as they ran around the plaza, and the cao birds in the trees screamed in response to the commotion. Good Friday around noon back in the convent’s courtyard was more serious. The two thieves were already mounted on their crosses. The crowd, cameras ready, watched as Jesus was mock-nailed to the cross and lifted up.

Just a few blocks from the convent, through a bending street of yellow-walled buildings, was the large, partially restored Kinich Kak Mo pyramid. Some of its stones were taken to build the San Antonio church, but when I climbed to the top of Kinich Kak Mo, I stood high above the yellow convent.

The Yellow City

Flights Abroad from Milwaukee

Few people seem to know it, but General Mitchell International Airport is an international airport. These customers are mostly snowbirds, with almost three-quarters of direct international Milwaukee passengers traveling during January, February, March, and April.

Last year about six and a half million passengers flew through Milwaukee’s airport. Of these, about 110,000, or 1.7 percent, were on direct international flights, although the number of such fliers has inched up in the past few years while overall passenger traffic has plummeted from a high of almost 10 million in 2010. (After incredible passenger growth, AirTran and Southwest consolidated, Republic cutback substantially, and an intense period of competition in our market ended.)

International service is mostly limited to regular flights to Toronto and seasonal flights to Mexico. Starting around Christmas and through spring break, AeroMexico, Delta, Frontier, and Southwest offer direct flights to family-friendly Caribbean beach spots like Mexico’s Cancun and Cozumel, the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana, and Montego Bay in Jamaica. Flights also go to Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Southwest and Delta currently offer flights to Cancun year round but only on Saturdays.

But most people who fly internationally from Milwaukee do not fly direct. The 2012 Brookings study “Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America” reported that in 2011, of all passengers flying abroad from Milwaukee, 85 percent made a US connection before leaving the country.

This is not surprising, given that an incredible 96.6 percent of all international travelers from the U.S. either originate in or travel through just 17 metropolitan gateways. These are major international hubs like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami.

The O’Hare Factor

One advantage of living in Milwaukee is that we are only 80 miles from one of the world’s great airports, which means that Paris, Beijing, Istanbul, and Tokyo are all a single flight away. But that means a ride to O’Hare, and dealing with O’Hare, which adds considerable time to your trip before you ever get on a plane.

You can also fly out of Milwaukee and connect in a city, such as Atlanta or Dallas, with more international flights. In fact, if we want more direct international flights from Milwaukee, this is exactly what officials at Mitchell International recommend. According to Ryan McAdams, spokesman for the airport: “The very best way for travelers in Milwaukee who want to see additional service added here, is to fly from here. Starting your trip from Milwaukee helps create demand for more air service here at MKE. When choosing where to grow, airlines tend to choose cities that have the most demand.”

Milwaukee is not an international gateway. With no major airlines headquartered here and a metropolitan area population usually ranked about 35th in the country or slightly lower, that is unlikely to change. But we have frequent service to major international gateway cities like Atlanta and Chicago, and it helps to have O’Hare just an hour and a half drive away. A city like Kansas City, very similar to Milwaukee but isolated geographically, does not have that advantage.

But McAdams cautions people who think flying out of O’Hare is easier because it avoids a second connection, that “connecting by car” in Chicago often ends up costing more as well as causing more headaches. He adds that only 67 percent of flights departed from O’Hare on time in 2014, worst in the nation.

So take advantage of seasonal direct international flights from Milwaukee when you can. Not only do they connect us to great beaches but to parts of the globe that are worlds away from our everyday lives. And consider McAdams’ idea of flying from Milwaukee and connecting to an intermediary city rather than using O’Hare for international travel

Our flight options are an asset for Milwaukee. The Brookings report notes that “while a metro area may have a wealth of human and economic capital, they cannot fully exploit those resources without strategic global linkages.” Our seasonal international flights are successful, and service may continue to expand moderately. Though San Juan, Puerto Rico is actually part of the U.S., it is an overseas destination that offers both beaches and family links for our significant Puerto Rican population, and might be a successful fit for the next direct flight from Mitchell. If the demand is there, the flights will be added.


22 thoughts on “Yes, We Have an International Airport”

  1. Eric S says:

    It’s worth noting that a nonstop flight to San Juan would not be an international flight as Puerto Rico is part of the US.

  2. Miles S says:

    Great article, wish more people knew about the international options at Billy Mitchell (what I like to call it). I’ve heard great things about some coastal Colombian towns, wonder if a non-stop down to South America is in the cards any time soon. Southwest is also making great strides and generally avoids airports that create delays (I’m looking at you ORD) so I wonder if Billy Mitchell can leverage this growing airline and add some more flights to great places.

    Look forward to hearing more from this new writer and his other travels!

    And oh yeah, Go Bucks!

  3. PMD says:

    10 years ago you could find extremely cheap flights from Mitchell to Toronto’s Pearson. Unfortunately when I went to Toronto last September, it was 3 or 4 times more expensive to fly out of Mitchell compared to O’Hare.

  4. Dale says:

    Mitchell actually has more international flights…often by a wide margin…over airports like St Louis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Nashville, Kansas City and Columbus. As for our total traffic numbers plummeting sunce 2010 it’s worth noting that a huge portion of the that traffic bulge came from connecting passengers that used to flow through the AirTran and Midwest/Frontier hubs. That is mostly gone but the local boardings here have stabilized and started to creep upwards again.

  5. Bruce Murphy says:

    Eric S. thanks for note, we corrected the line about Puerto Rico

  6. Bill says:

    It’s also worth noting that Milwaukee is one of four cities or so that offer direct flights to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica on Southwest. I believe BWI, Midway, and Denver were the other three.

  7. Nicholas La Joie says:

    A regular transatlantic flight from Milwaukee would be highly influential and long overdue for international travelers in the area. Cities smaller than Milwaukee (Memphis, Nashville) have had direct flights to Europe for years, as transatlantic flights garner the most demand from US airports among international flights.
    The trouble is that most major European airlines currently fly through O’Hare. Recent rumours have suggested that Mitchell may be looking to land Icelandic Air for regular flights between Milwaukee and Reykjavik, as this airline currently has no presence in the Chicago/Milwaukee market.
    I would personally fly to Iceland as often as I could if we landed this airline, not only to make cheap connections on discount airlines to other European cities from there (often selling for 30 or 40 Euros only), but also to enjoy the beautiful magnificence that is Iceland.
    At least one direct flight from Milwaukee to Europe is essential to feed the demand for international travel here.

  8. Eric S says:

    I think it is unlikely (not impossible, just unlikely) that we’ll see nonstop service from MKE to Europe (or anywhere outside North America) – perhaps Iceland or Norway, as their seem to be some interesting/odd airlines that try out less likely routes to those markets.

    The only airports considered by the FAA to be medium hubs (like MKE) based on passenger traffic that have nonstop or direct service to Europe (or in a few cases, Asia or South America) appear to be ANC, AUS, CVG, OAK, PIT, PVD, RDU, RSW, and SJC – leaving 24ish such airports, including MKE, which do not.

    Generally speaking, it’s either airports serving really large markets or airports that are large hubs for one of the surviving large/legacy carriers that have significant international service. As legacy carriers (American Airlines/US Airways, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines) have closed or shrunk their hubs (CLE, CVG, MEM, PIT, STL, etc.), many airports have lost the European flights they once had.

  9. Megan H says:

    We may have an international airport, but we have an embarrassment of an international terminal. Badly needs renovations, new photos of our revived downtown, and above all, some cabs waiting at the exit. The transportation choices are minimal, and we usually end up walking with our luggage back to the other terminals to catch a cab or get to our car.

  10. Eric S says:

    Here’s a quick list of similar airports serving similar-size cities (1.0-2.5 million metro areas) and international service from them:

    AUS (Austin) – Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom
    BDL (Hartford) – Canada, Mexico
    BNA (Nashville) – Canada
    CLE (Cleveland) – Canada, Dominican Republic, Mexico
    CMH (Columbus) – Canada
    CVG (Cincinnati) – Canada, Dominican Republic, France, Mexico
    IND (Indianapolis) – Bahamas, Canada, Mexico
    JAX (Jacksonville) – Bahamas
    MCI (Kansas City) – Canada
    MEM (Memphis) – Mexico
    MKE (Milwaukee) – Canada, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico
    MSY (New Orleans) – Canada, Dominican Republic, Mexico
    PIT (Pittsburgh) – Canada, Mexico
    PVD (Providence) – Cape Verde
    RDU (Raleigh/Durham) – Bahamas, Mexico, United Kingdom
    SAT (San Antonio) – Mexico
    SJC (San Jose) – China, Japan, Mexico
    SMF (Sacramento) – Mexico

    Plus charter service to other, typically resort, destinations.

  11. Nicholas says:

    I wonder if any of the European low-cost carriers that cannot get access to O’hare or Minneapolis would consider MKE as an alternative.

  12. Mike says:

    Interesting article. Being able to fly to a destination in two or three hours is such a pleasure compared to starting your trip with that seemingly endless bus ride (or even drive) to O’Hare.

  13. blurondo says:

    It’s time to add Havana to the MKE International direct flight list.

  14. Nicholas La Joie says:

    See my comment above. Probably the biggest European airline that doesn’t fly into O’Hare or MSP is Icelandic Air. There has been talk of bringing them to Mitchell.

    Also, for several years now, discount airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet have discussed adding transatlantic destinations from Europe, but international and FAA regulations have made that tricky.
    After a new OpenSkies agreement a few years ago, Ryanair had announced such flights via a new airline called RyanAtlantic, which had been in discussion to fly to Milwaukee, among other U.S. cities, but those plans were dropped last year.

    I would love to see the German discount airline Air Berlin add flights to Milwaukee (currently they fly to a few US cities including Chicago), or some other discount airline that uses 787 or A350 jets to serve secondary markets such as Milwaukee from Europe. It is long overdue.

  15. Nicholas La Joie says:

    CORRECTION: Iceland Air does fly to MSP, but not to O’Hare

  16. spot says:

    @Nicholas-es majorly trying to make the transatlantic ULCC thing work. They’re flying to Oakland for SF, maybe they’d try it. Mexican ULCC expanding to dozens of US cities, but they’re currently moving destinations from MDW to ORD, which makes them a little less likely to come here.

  17. Nicholas says:

    I wonder if there is any appetite locally for expanded routes to some Canadian cities, Montreal, Calgary?

    I know Madison has recently seen a bump in traffic due to epic, how do we pry those business travels away from a much smaller, much more expensive airport?

  18. PMD says:

    As I alluded to above, when my wife and I flew to Toronto in September, the small number of direct flights and the high cost of what was available was disappointing. Air Canada used to fly direct from Mitchell to Pearson for really cheap.

  19. Mark Foley says:

    There is a chicken and egg problem: businesses, especially larger ones like JCI,GE, Harley, Rockwell, etc. complain that lack of direct flights from MKE is a major detriment to expanding business here. But you can’t get flights until you establish demand. Also, the cost differential for a European flight starting in MKE and connecting in ORD, vs. taking the bus to ORD, can be has high as $400.

    A workable alternative would be to create a high-speed passenger and luggage connection between MKE and ORD so you could treat MKE as the North Terminal, land in one place and make connections at the other, or divert landings from bad weather to clear weather and still make timely connections. Buses won’t do it.

    High speed rail or, perhaps better, Elon Musk’s magnetic/pneumatic tube system could do the trick.

  20. Tim says:

    What happened the last time there was a plan for High Speed Rail from Milwaukee to Chicago, whose construction costs were 100% paid for by the federal government?

    Maybe a historian like John Gurda could remind us what happened.

  21. Jeff says:

    Now that Mitchell’s new director is pushing ahead with plans to convert Concourse E into a proper international terminal, maybe this topic deserves a second shot. Several aviation sites report that Mexico’s Volaris has applied to the FAA for routes to Milwaukee (as well as to Austin); Volaris is a great discount airline. There’s also talk that Mitchell is, indeed, courting several European airlines, including Norwegian Air, Condor and EuroWings. If you don’t think Mitchell can support international flights, look at airports in Providence, Baltimore, Portland, Oakland and Fort Lauderdale–all smaller cities near a larger metro that have recently launched non-stops to Europe.

  22. BC Shelby says:

    …Boeing recently announced plans for the 797, which will fit in between the 737 Max and 787. The plane is designed specifically with providing long range/transatlantic service to smaller market cities (like Milwaukee) in mind. The 737 Max also will have the range to provide such service as well.

    One good candidate is Norwegian Air which currently serves Mitchell with “sunbird” flights to the Caribbean. The airline is not only taking on more orders for 787s, but the 737 Max 10 and is interested in the 797.. Norwegian is also looking to increase service between Europe and North America and is evaluating “second tier airports” that are close to major population centres such as Milwaukee Mitchell. Given the refurbishment that is under way to transform the underused E concourse into an international terminal complete with customs, as well as the close proximity to the Northern Chicago environs as well as having a rail station associated with the airport, Milwaukee could become an attractive “secondary” gateway. for the lower Great Lakes/Chicago region.

    True we may not be able to attract the big foreign carriers like British, Lufthansa, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Qantas, ANA, or Ethiad, nor have overseas service provided by any of the big three US carriers (particularly since a number of them already offer intercontinental service from O’Hare). However, many of the low fare international airlines like Norwegian, Condor, Icelandair, and Air Berlin would fit right in.

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