General Mitchell International Airport was riding high in 2010.
The airport served a record of more than 9.8 million passengers that year, up 24 percent from 2009. Milwaukee travelers benefited from low fares offered on an abundance of flights as Southwest Airlines, AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines battled for market share.
Southwest emerged as the clear winner of that battle. Southwest acquired AirTran in 2011. Republic Airways Holdings merged Oak Creek-based Midwest Airlines into the Frontier brand in 2010, but Frontier suffered heavy losses and within two years, dramatically cut its Milwaukee service.
The Southwest acquisition of AirTran and the Frontier cutbacks resulted in a significant reduction of service in Milwaukee and higher fares. The number of passengers using the airport fell to 6.5 million in 2013, a 33.7 percent decrease from the airport’s peak in 2010.
Then in 2014, airport director Barry Bateman retired, after leading the operations at Mitchell International for 31 years.
Terry Slaybaugh was named director of the airport in 2015, but he resigned after being on the job for fewer than three months. He returned to his previous job as director of the Dayton, Ohio airport.
Forced to regroup, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele selected Ismael “Izzy” Bonilla to run Mitchell International and Lawrence J. Timmerman Airport. Previously, Bonilla was chief business development officer for Hi-Lite Airfield Services LLC (a runway and taxiway marking contractor) in Jacksonville, Florida for 11 months. Before that, he had extensive airport management experience, including working for two years as chief operating officer for Aerostar Airport Holdings (the private operator of the San Juan, Puerto Rico airport), three years as the deputy director of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (Florida) International Airport and nearly four years as director for aviation management for the Jacksonville, Florida airport. He also worked for about two years as the director of operations for the Santiago International Airport in Santiago, Chile.
Bonilla said the Milwaukee job opportunity appealed to him because he wanted a chance hold the top job running an airport.
“Milwaukee was probably the right place at the right time with the right fit,” he said.
Because he held a major position for the private firm that operates the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Puerto Rico, some wondered if Bonilla’s hiring indicated Abele would push to privatize Mitchell International. Bonilla shot down that speculation.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Not while I’m here.”
Puerto Rico is having major financial problems and the airport needed to be privatized to get a cash influx for upgrades. That’s not the case in Milwaukee, Bonilla said.
“To privatize an airport like this, to me it would not be a good fit,” he said. “This is a successful airport, a financially viable airport. Yes, it went through a little bit of a hard time after the de-hubbing of the two airlines (AirTran and Frontier/Midwest). But it is not an airport that is struggling and everybody is abandoning ship. We’ve come out of that small crisis.”
Bonilla started at Mitchell in February 2016. After a year on the job, he is planning numerous upgrades to the airport, where passenger traffic rose 3.2 percent in 2016, to 6.8 million.
Two major projects are on the front burner: a new international concourse and upgrades to the retail and restaurant offerings, which would include a new central security checkpoint.
New international concourse
The airport hired a Minnesota-based firm to do a feasibility study for the international concourse project. The airport’s current international arrivals terminal building is small, outdated and inadequate, Bonilla said.
“It is not very conducive to the type of operations, the airlines that we want to attract,” he said. “It is a facility that at its time met its purpose. But since then, most airports that want to attract international service have facilities that are more adequate to industry standards. We need to grow; we need to expand.”
Bonilla and his staff were able to attract Mexican airline Volaris, which recently began year-round service from Milwaukee to Guadalajara, Mexico. They hope to attract more international service, but need a better facility, he said.
“I don’t want to say that if we build it they will come,” Bonilla said. “But if we don’t build it, I know they are not going to come.”
The plan is to convert either part or all of Concourse E into an international concourse. Concourse E is underutilized and United Airlines, the only remaining airline operating in the concourse, will be moved to other gates at the airport.
The cost of the project has yet to be determined, though last year Bonilla told BizTimes the cost probably will be about $40 million. Last year, the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation’s Airport Division submitted a preliminary budget request for the project of nearly $42 million.
The project will be paid for with funds from passenger facility charges (a fee added to each passenger ticket), concessions revenues that have been saved in an airport reserve fund and state funds.
The Federal Inspection Services facility, where passengers go through customs, will likely account for about 60 percent of the project cost, Bonilla said.
“One thing that’s not negotiable is the FIS (facility),” he said. “Whatever customs needs and requires, that’s what customs is going to get.”
The feasibility study for the international terminal is expected to be completed by the middle of April.
Bonilla is hoping to finish the project by the end of 2020.
Concessions and central security checkpoint
The county has issued a request for proposal for a master concessions operator. The project also would create a centralized security checkpoint and improve the airport’s retail, food and beverage offerings.
Currently, passengers go through security when they enter one of the three concourses at the airport (currently named C, D and E, the concourses will be renamed A, B and C). Before going down a concourse to their gate, passengers can shop at stores or get something to eat at a restaurant in the airport’s main terminal. There are also stores and restaurants in the concourses, after the security checkpoints.
The problem is, many passengers are eager to get through security, so they don’t spend time at the stores or restaurants in the main terminal, Bonilla said.
“We have seen using our metrics that pretty much all of the stores, except for maybe one or two, are underperforming when it comes to what they are capable of doing, versus the post-security stores,” he said.
The design of the airport, with numerous stores and restaurants placed in a pre-security area, is based on a pre-Sept. 11, 2001 era of less intense security checks for passengers.
“Back in the pre-9/11 days, that was great,” Bonilla said. “But now most people, they just want to get through the security checkpoint, get that out of the way, and now I can relax. What we are doing (with this project) is right-sizing our facilities.”
Airport officials want a new central security checkpoint, rather than separate security checkpoints for each concourse, which passengers would clear before passing most of the retail and food and beverage vendors.
The cost of the project is yet to be determined and will be paid for by the concessions operator, which will operate all of the retail, food and beverage operations at the airport, under the county’s oversight.
Bonilla said he wants a significant upgrade in the retail and food and beverage offerings at Mitchell.
“By upgrade, I mean we are going to be mixing local flavors and local providers to give it a sense of place, a sense of, ‘You’re in Wisconsin. You’re in Milwaukee,’” Bonilla said.
Some national restaurants and retailers could also be present, he said.The retail and concessions operator must also reach out to local small and minority-owned businesses that are interested in having shops at the airport, Bonilla said.
“One of the things we are looking at is for this master concession provider to be an advocate for minority companies or companies that are smaller that would love to be at the airport, but they just don’t know how to do it, it’s too expensive or it’s too complicated,” he said.
The combination of a central security checkpoint project with a retail, food and beverage operation makes this a unique project for an airport.
“Normally, airports build the central security checkpoint and they give the space to the concession operator to build their restaurants and everything else,” Bonilla said. “In this case, we want the concession operator to build the central security checkpoint also, so this is something that has not been done that I know of. So, it’s kind of a game-changer.”
Responses to the RFP are due in late May. The county held a pre-proposal meeting about a month ago and 60 people showed up representing airport concessions operators from around the world, Bonilla said.
“We had international companies from France all the way to Mexico come in,” he said. “We had a German-American company show up, a British-American company show up. We had a Mexican airport operator show up. And then we had all of the usual players, whether that be everything from food and beverage to retailers. They all showed up.”
Bonilla expects creative proposals for the unique project.
“Be creative. Be innovative,” he said. “Does it have to be on the second floor? I don’t know. Could it be on the first floor? I don’t know. That’s up to them to decide. As long as they meet TSA federal guidelines for passenger flows, security protocols, all of that kind of stuff, then it’s really up to them to decide where to put it. It’s going to be exciting when we open up those proposals, because it’s really up to them and their creativity.”
After the central security checkpoint is established, there still will be some retail, food and beverage services pre-security and the Mitchell Gallery of Flight museum also likely will be moved to the pre-security area, Bonilla said.
Adding more airlines, destinations
Bonilla and his team have been working to attract more airlines and more destinations at Mitchell. They have had some success. Last month, Volaris launched service from Milwaukee to Guadalajara, Mexico, and Delta added nonstop service to Seattle and will add an additional flight to Boston in June. Alaska Airlines will add service from Milwaukee to Portland, Oregon in June. Last year, Frontier added routes to Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Southwest added a route to San Diego.
Airlines serving Mitchell International now offer flights to 39 destinations.
“For our size airport, we have a very good, robust, direct flight availability,” Bonilla said. “There are airports larger than us and communities that are larger than us that have fewer direct flights.”
Still, Bonilla knows Milwaukee-area business travelers want more destinations and more flights from the airport, and he says he and his staff actively are working to attract more.
“We just keep beating the drums with (the airlines),” he said. “Without mentioning any names, we do have airlines that are very, very interested in Milwaukee right now.”
In particular, Bonilla and his staff are working to get direct flight service from Milwaukee to Miami, Raleigh-Durham and Nashville.
Airlines are very sophisticated in how they analyze market data to determine where to add service, Bonilla said. The best thing Milwaukee-area travelers can do to help attract more service is to use Mitchell as much as possible, as opposed to driving down to Chicago to fly out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport or Chicago Midway International Airport.
“We keep emphasizing that the more the community of Milwaukee uses this airport, the greater the feasibility and the possibility of having one of these airlines start operations or increase frequency,” he said.
Airport officials have worked to attract more international flights and still would like to attract direct service to Europe. For Mitchell to gain a Milwaukee to Europe flight, it would have to offer the airline a minimum revenue guarantee, Bonilla said. The airport is not permitted to provide such a guarantee, but private and state funds could be put into an account to offer that incentive to an airline, he said.
Airport officials are in ongoing talks with business, tourism and state officials to create a minimum revenue guarantee fund to attract direct Milwaukee to Europe air service. Other cities have offered such incentives to attract international service.
“We have been approached by some European airlines, which I can’t mention right now, but they are very, very interested in offering flights from Milwaukee to, specifically, London and Germany,” Bonilla said. “But unfortunately, they ask us for this MRG and we have to tell them, ‘We are working on it.’ They tell us, ‘When you get it done, call us and we’ll see if we want to still entertain coming to Milwaukee.’”
It would take a $2 million to $3 million fund to offer a minimum revenue guarantee to attract a Milwaukee to Europe flight, Bonilla said.
“It’s not a very easy thing to do,” he said. “But there have been other airports that have had to set aside a lot more than that.”
Starting in April, Interflight Parking Co. LLC will be the new operator for the parking facilities at Mitchell International. After the airlines, parking is the second largest revenue source for the airport (about $26 million to $28 million annually), so those operations are critical.
The airport competes with privately operated parking lots nearby. To make the parking facilities at the airport more attractive, Bonilla wants to add amenities for customers that park there.
“We want to offer a service to our users that is above and beyond what they would get anywhere else,” he said. “We want to offer stuff like rewards programs, incentives, possibly valet programs, and in those valet programs you can have car washes. We also can combine those types of programs with our concessions programs. If you park here for a certain amount of time you may get a discount in the stores, or vice versa.”
Airport officials also are looking for opportunities to lease land for commercial development or usage and are marketing several buildings and sites at the former U.S. Air Force Reserve 440th Airlift Wing site as the MKE Regional Business Park.
“We are going to give you a really good rate for the land. See if you can create opportunities,” Bonilla said.
Bonilla says the airport is working to improve the analysis of its performance and plan for its future.
“I’m a firm believer if you don’t know what you’re doing right now, you don’t know where you’re going to go,” he said.
One thing passengers consistently say is they like the ease of getting into and out of Mitchell, Bonilla said.
“We not only want to keep that, we want to improve that,” he said.
Ismael “Izzy” Bonilla
Title: Executive director
Company: General Mitchell International Airport
- Chief business development officer for Hi-Lite Airfield Services LLC in Jacksonville, Florida.
- Chief operating officer for Aerostar Airport Holdings (the private operator of the San Juan, Puerto Rico airport)
- Deputy director of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (Florida) International Airport
- Director for aviation management for the Jacksonville, Florida airport
- Director of operations for Santiago International Airport in Santiago, Chile
Military service: U.S. Air Force, 20 years
Family: Married with one daughter. Lives in Franklin.