Airline travel in Wisconsin picks up but not to pre-pandemic levels

Wisconsin airports seeing more leisure travel; but business travel slower to rebound

Airline passengers make their way through Chicago O'hare Intercontinental Airport
Airline passengers make their way through Chicago O’Hare Intercontinental Airport Sunday, May 16, 2021, in Chicago. Airline travel is increasing as more Americans are getting the COVID-19 vaccination. David J. Phillip/AP Photo

Travel picked up considerably this holiday season compared to last year, with some passengers still scrambling to get home after flights were canceled or delayed due to weather and crew shortages from COVID-19 infections.

One Wisconsin airport director has some advice: Be prepared — just like the Boy Scouts of America motto says.

“We’re just reminding people to plan ahead, make sure that you have your airlines’ app downloaded on your phone so you can keep track of your flight status. Recognize there are labor shortages that are impacting concessionaires at other airports so maybe pack some snacks to take along with you in case your favorite restaurant at O’Hare is not open,” said Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport director Marty Piette.

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The airport in Green Bay, along with Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport and Dane County Regional Airport, have all seen more passengers this holiday season than they had at this time last year.

“2021 has made up quite a bit of ground but not quite yet to 2019 numbers,” said Michael Riechers, director of marketing and communications at Dane County Regional Airport. Dane County set a record for overall airline travel in 2019 with 2.3 million passengers.

When the airline industry might fully recover is a moving target as different COVID-19 variants affect people’s willingness and sometimes ability to fly, especially if they’re traveling internationally.

Riechers said they hope to approach pre-pandemic volume this year or next, based on industry forecasts which say business travel will be slow to return. However, all three airports say leisure travel has recovered strongly.

At Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, three new airlines have added service. Spirit Airlines started flying out of Milwaukee in June, Jet Blue Airways is scheduled to start March 27, and Sun County Airlines added nonstop flights to popular destinations like Fort Meyers, Phoenix and Cancun in December.

“If we can support these new flights, the airlines will keep them over the long term,” said Harold Mester, director of marketing for Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. “What we don’t want to see is travelers flying from a Chicago airport because that really hurts the Wisconsin economy.”

Mester said flights out of Milwaukee were up 65 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 and the number of passengers in 2021 is projected to be up 75 percent. Final passenger numbers for local airports won’t be available until later this month, but nationally travel has grown significantly, according to the Transportation Security Administration.