March 05. 2012 10:00AM - Last modified: March 06. 2012 11:20AM

Milwaukee business travelers will feel the pinch

By Molly Dill

  
Frontier Airlines' flight reductions and Southwest Airlines' acquisition of AirTran Airways are likely to have a direct impact on business travelers flying in and out of Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport.

It is important for Milwaukee's tourism industry to have direct flights at competitive prices to and from the city, according to Paul Upchurch, president and chief executive officer of Visit Milwaukee, which organizes business conventions and encourages tourism to the city.

"You can get here, and you can get here cost-effectively — that's always been an advantage," Upchurch said. "We've been in a great position that we've not only had a lot of cities that you can fly to directly from Milwaukee, but also because of competition."

Most of the consumer feedback Mitchell International director Barry Bateman has received has been about the loss of business class seating on AirTran. Southwest has no pre-assigned seats.

It won't be easy for Southwest to address those complaints, since it has been operating under its current seating policy for about 40 years.

"They don't want to lose those businesspeople. Those are high yield people," Bateman said.

Anne Zizzo, president and CEO of Zizzo Group Marketing + PR + New Media in Milwaukee, sends employees all over the nation to work with clients, and she is worried about losing the AirTran flying experience, including business class.

"What we've enjoyed historically is the ability to get directly from Milwaukee to pretty much any part of the country with cost-efficient fares and very often not even having to have a layover anywhere," Zizzo said. "We certainly do have a lot of conversations around here about how some of those travel plans, travel costs, travel routes are going to change."

Some Milwaukee business travelers may simply stop flying to difficult-to-reach destinations.

Dave Wendland, vice president of Waukesha-based health retailer Hamacher Resource Group Inc., often sends his company's business development team on trips, and he also travels for conferences and speaking engagements.

Changes at Mitchell will put a crimp in his employees' abilities to get in front of clients, he said.

"It's going to disrupt what were once direct flights from Milwaukee," Wendland said. "I think we're going to find that some trips will be combined or delayed or we'll do more via webinar."

Wendland also is worried about fares increasing as Frontier draws down its Milwaukee "hub" status.

Several local travelers lauded Mitchell as an easy, convenient airport close to home.

Roger Stafford, associate publisher of Key Milwaukee and KeyMilwaukee.com, travels out of Mitchell to meet with publishers of visitor guides in other cities.

"We always fly out of Mitchell, and I'm kind of worried," he said. "There are a lot of Milwaukee business and pleasure travelers that really enjoy the amount of connections that we have from here."

Stafford expected rates to go up with the acquisition of AirTran, but he was not expecting route reductions.

Fewer direct flights and more expensive flights could mean fewer conventions being hosted in Milwaukee.

With fierce competition between airlines, Mitchell became a viable option for Chicago travelers. Now that Frontier is cutting flights here, that traffic is likely to swing the other way, with Milwaukee people seeking more competitive fares out of Chicago.

"Our alternative of course is to fly out of O'Hare — not a great alternative," Wendland said. "We've enjoyed so long having a local airport that's easy in easy out that doesn't require exorbitant parking fees."

Gene Knabe, regional CNI sales manager at Cooper Power Systems in Waukesha, travels about 50 percent of the time for work. He manages the northeastern territory of the United States, so Knabe often travels to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Boston. Depending on the price point, he is willing to drive to O'Hare to get a better fare.

"There are times that I will fly out of Chicago because of the fact that there's actual competition in Chicago reduces the cost of the flight," Knabe said.

Knabe spends a lot of his time in the air, so he prefers to sit in business class. He also has racked up a lot of frequent flier miles on his favorite airlines.

"As a business traveler, it's a double edged sword for us," he said. "There are certain airlines that I would prefer to fly. Not all airlines for business travelers have the same level of service."

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