Put AirTran’s promises on the bulletin board

    I have no reason to believe that AirTran Holdings Inc. chief executive officer Joseph Leonard is a liar. None. He seems like a straight shooter and he’s certainly had an accomplished career in the airline industry.

    That being said, it’s fair to put Leonard on the record, and if his company is successful in its hostile takeover of Milwaukee’s beloved Midwest Air Group Inc., then we’ve got to hold him accountable for the promises he makes during this courtship period.

    After all, Leonard’s promises are plentiful, and they’re humongous.

    At a Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon this week, Leonard said that if AirTran acquires Midwest, travelers flying out of Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport can expect to pay airfares that will be 60 percent cheaper than most of the fares we’re paying now. He also said we can expect more direct flights to more cities.

    The latter claim seems reasonable, given that AirTran already has ordered a fleet of Boeing jets, and it’s got to put them somewhere. Milwaukee would be AirTran’s de facto grand re-entry into the Chicago market, because the company has no chance of getting gates at O’Hare International Airport, and Midway Airport is … well, it’s Midway Airport.

    Leonard also said he would probably spend about 75 percent of his time in Milwaukee. "If we pull this off, you will see a lot of me," Leonard promised.

    When asked about what Milwaukee can expect in terms of corporate support for the community, Leonard responded that AirTran will provide "as much or more" support.

    THAT may be Leonard’s boldest promise yet. Midwest provides free tickets to countless local nonprofit agencies for use as raffle and auction prizes at fundraising events throughout the region. Furthermore, Midwest often provides discounted or even free airfare for guest speakers who fly to Milwaukee to speak at fundraising events.

    And then there’s the not-so-little commitment to Milwaukee’s tourism industry. In 1997, Midwest agreed to a contract to buy the naming rights of Milwaukee’s Downtown convention center, providing $8.5 million in cash and $750,000 in airline tickets to be pro-rated over a 15-year term to promote Milwaukee as a tourism destination.

    According to the Wisconsin Center District, which operates the Midwest Airlines Center, Midwest contributes $50,000 in annual travel credits for convention marketing purposes as part of its title sponsorship, and about two-thirds of the naming rights proceeds are earmarked for the marketing of Milwaukee as a tourism and destination city.

    "We just hope that the commitment to tourism as much or greater," said David Fantle, vice president of public relations for Visit Milwaukee. "Midwest has been a great partner, a strong partner, in the marketing of the city."

    So, I guess we’ll just have to see about all that. For the moment, we’ll take your word, Mr. Leonard.

    We’ll be trusting, but verifying.

    When asked if he’d consider moving his company’s corporate headquarters to Milwaukee, a move that would certainly seal the deal, Leonard said that would not be an option. He implied that the geographic location of a company’s headquarters is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the information age, when cell phones, video conferences and e-mails increasingly supplant face-to-face business meetings.

    True enough. But I couldn’t help but recall the promises once made by Jerry Grundhofer, when he was the CEO of the old Firstar Corp. in Milwaukee (speaking of naming rights, anybody remember the old Firstar Fireworks?). When Firstar bought U.S. Bank, adopted its name and moved the merged company’s headquarters out of Milwaukee to Minneapolis in 2001, Grundhofer said the location of his corporate headquarters was not important, because his company’s headquarters were wherever he was.

    To which I wondered … Where are the company’s headquarters when he’s on the toilet?


    Steve Jagler is executive editor of Small Business Times.


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