In October of 2011, the last Midwest Airlines flight will land and the iconic Milwaukee brand will be gone for good.
The company's Oak Creek headquarters are up for sale. Its piliots and flight attendants were let go. Its planes were replaced. On Tuesday, its name died.
Only the trademark chocolate chip remains as a testament to what once was one of Wisconsin's most important and beloved companies.
Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings Inc. announced Tuesday that it is merging Midwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines into one airline by eliminating the Midwest brand and keeping the Frontier name.
With the merger of the two airlines, the new Frontier Airlines will serve 73 cities with hubs in Denver and Milwaukee. The airline will consider Kansas City a "focus city," said Bryan Bedford, president, chairman and chief executive officer of Republic.
"Our focus is on Denver, Milwaukee and Kansas City to a lesser extent," Bedford said.
Republic, an airline holding company, acquired Midwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines last year.
It would be "cost inefficient" to maintain two brands and the employees preferred to be unified under a single brand, Bedford said.
"We are going to be stronger as one unified company than we would be with two separate airlines," he said.
Republic conducted extensive surveys of its employees and customers to determine how the Midwest and Frontier brands should be combined, Bedford said.
That research found strong brand loyalty in Milwaukee for Midwest Airlines and in Denver for Frontier Airlines. However, the brand loyalty appeared to be stronger in Denver. Milwaukee passengers appeared to be more willing to except a name change, Bedford said.
That may be because Midwest Airlines had already been changed dramatically from the Midwest Express service that its customers had once been so loyal to. Midwest once offered numerous amenities on its flights including gourmet meals, wine, champagne and wide leather seats. But over time, all of those amenities, except for the chocolate chip cookies, were eliminated as the company cut costs and struggled to survive.
The surveys showed that Midwest Airlines customers are less interested in seeing the name preserved and are more interested in getting affordable fares and convenient direct air service, Bedford said. Customers are no longer willing to pay more for high-end amenities on flights, he said.
Another major reason for choosing the Frontier name is that it has much more national recognition, Bedford said. Outside of Milwaukee, Midwest Airlines has very little brand recognition, he said.
Frontier Airlines had a significantly larger customer base and was better poised for growth, Bedford said, than Midwest Airlines. Last year Frontier served 10.7 million passengers, while Midwest only had 3.1 million passengers.
The decision to eliminate the Midwest Airlines name "has been a tough call," but the decision was made based on the facts revealed in the market research, Bedford said.
Despite the death of the Midwest Airlines name, Republic is adding more jobs here, overall. The company is in the process of adding 800 employees in Milwaukee, doubling its workforce in the area, but is eliminating operations at the Oak Creek corporate campus that was Midwest's headquarters.
Republic also has added five destinations from Milwaukee this year and plans to add more, Bedford said. The company will focus on adding destinations from Milwaukee that are not available on other airlines, he said.
"We have to grow in unique markets," Bedford said.
Republic wants to keep the best attributes of Midwest Airlines as it merges it with Frontier Airlines, Bedford said. As such, Midwest's signature chocolate chip cookie will now be served on all Frontier flights.
"The cookie is alive and well," Bedford said.
Frontier's signature amenity may be its 32-channel live television service available in every seat, for $6.
The Midwest Airlines Center, the downtown Milwaukee convention center, will be re-named the Frontier Airlines Center. Republic must pay for the costs of new signage for the name change. The convention center name change will occur in about 90 to 120 days, Bedford said.
Frontier will take Midwest Airlines' place as the official airline of the Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks and Summerfest. Republic is planning a significant marketing and sponsorship campaign to build Frontier's brand awareness in the Milwaukee area.
Frontier will assume Midwest's status as the market share leader at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, but it will face growing competition from Orlando-based AirTran Airways, which has also established a hub at Mitchell, Southwest Airlines and others.
AirTran's increased presence in Milwaukee and Southwest's entrance into the market has helped attract record passenger numbers to Mitchell.
Andrew Weiland is executive editor at BizTimes Milwaukee.