Graham Kilmer

Staff Shortage Limits Airport’s Rebound

Demand is way up since pandemic, but airline capacity an issue for Mitchell International Airport.

By - Oct 24th, 2022 04:55 pm
Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. Image from the airport.

Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. Image from the airport.

As air passenger traffic continues its long rebound from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the air travel industry is finding that the problem is no longer passenger demand.

In 2020, passenger traffic through Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport was the lowest it had been since 1984. It has since returned to approximately 80% of pre-pandemic traffic levels. In 2023, airport officials estimate that will be up to 86%.

The problem, according to the airport, is a shortage of flight crews industry wide.

“We’re seeing high demand from a passenger standpoint,” Airport director Brian Dranzik told the Milwaukee County Board’s budget committee in October. “We’re just not seeing the follow through from the schedules from the airlines.”

In 2019, the airport saw a total of 6.8 million passengers pass through the airport. If 2022 continues at its current pace, it will see somewhere between 5 and 6 million passengers. Throughout 2022, demand has been steady, with nearly half a million passengers traveling through the airport on a monthly basis since February.

But airlines and the airport itself have had trouble staffing up to meet the demand.

“Many U.S.-based airlines have reduced their schedules to improve their schedule reliability,” said Harold Mester, Milwaukee Mitchell director of public affairs and marketing. ”Some airlines have upgraded to larger aircraft at MKE, giving them the ability to fly more passengers per flight without needing more pilots.”

Meanwhile, the airport is also struggling with recruitment and retention, Dranzik noted, as inflation drives up wage competition. “We’re seeing recruitments that we have to post two and three times for things like accountants, contract managers, things of that nature,” he said.

Despite the limited capacity, the airport is still seeing 33% more traffic in 2022 than it did in 2021 as of the latest available data from August. The airport reports that most of the planes leaving Milwaukee are 90% full, according to a budgetary review by the Office of the Milwaukee County Comptroller.

Like other transportation systems – the Milwaukee County Transit System, for example – the airport is highly dependent on passenger traffic for revenue. And it has similarly had to rely on stimulus funds provided by the federal government during the pandemic to backfill operational costs. It will use an estimated $15.6 million in federal funds in 2023.

The airport is an asset owned by Milwaukee County, but its operating budget is derived entirely from revenues generated through passenger and airline fees. When the airport exhausts its federal pandemic aid, which is expected to occur during the next one to two years, the airlines will have to cover any budget deficits in airport operations per their contractual obligations, according to the comptroller’s office.

One area where the federal funding and airline lease agreements aren’t much help is for funding major infrastructure and facilities projects at the airport. Federal pandemic aid to airports was earmarked for operations and cannot be spent on capital projects, Dranzik told the board’s budget committee. This is where the declining passenger traffic and concessions revenues is stinging the airport, generating less revenue for capital projects.

Categories: Transportation, Weekly

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