Air travel in Wisconsin has recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic at a slower rate than the rest of the country, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
The report, which cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, shows passenger traffic at Wisconsin's eight airports last year was down nearly 32% from pre-pandemic 2019. That's compared to a 25% deficit at airports nationwide.
The two largest airports in the state, Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport and Dane County Regional Airport, remained farthest from pre-pandemic passenger levels in 2021, down 33% and 39%, respectively. These two airports are responsible for more than three-fourths of Wisconsin's passenger totals. Milwaukee, alone, accounted for nearly 60% of the state’s commercial air passenger volume in 2021.
The report points out the significant rebound Wisconsin airports saw in 2021, with passenger numbers for domestic flights increasing more than 78% after plummeting 62% in 2020. It also suggests better days are ahead. Passenger traffic at Milwaukee Mitchell this year still lags behind pre-pandemic levels but has seen gradual recovery from month to month: preliminary data show passenger volumes were down relative to the same month in 2019 by 21.8% in January, 18.3% in February, and 19.6% in March.
As traffic at the airport has improved since the onset of the pandemic, several airlines have added new service at Mitchell International, primarily on leisure destinations. In 2021, four airlines announced plans to enter the Milwaukee market: Contour Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit and Sun Country. JetBlue recently begun providing direct flights from Milwaukee to Boston and New York, and Delta announced plans for nonstop flights to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Air Canada will soon resume daily nonstop service between Milwaukee and Toronto.
But the report makes a disclaimer.
"While 2022 looks promising, these trends bear watching, as restoring air service is essential for economic development," Wisconsin Policy Forum said.
And as corporate air travel continues to make a slow comeback - much slower than leisure travel - the report suggests that longer term, industry-wide shifts could be afoot. It cites an analysis of 2022 travel outlook by Deloitte Development that found "corporate travel in 2022 is unlikely to reach or even near 2019 levels." Labor shortages could also get in the way of fully returning to pre-pandemic operations.
The report suggests boosting passengers and service at Wisconsin airports is "time sensitive."
"Mitchell Airport will have until 2025 to utilize its most recent allotment of federal aid. Fortunately, a user-fee-based model of airport finance means taxpayers in places such as Milwaukee County should not be on the hook for any operating deficit at the airport should revenues fall short," according to the report.