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Report: Smaller Wisconsin airports seeing passenger numbers closer to pre-pandemic numbers compared to larger airports

Matthew Leitner

Air travel took a major hit during the pandemic as people stopped traveling nearly entirely.

It’s recovered since then, but airports in Wisconsin still aren’t seeing the level of passengers from 2019, according to a recent Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

Over all, passenger travel is down 31.5% from 2019 at all Wisconsin airports. That’s worse than the national average where air travel is down 24.6%.

Of the eight passenger airports that offer commercial air service in Wisconsin, the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport has seen passenger numbers recover the most since the start of the pandemic.

According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, passenger number totals are down about 3.6% from 2019.

Large airports like Milwaukee and Madison are down more than 30%.

Rhinelander Airport Director Matthew Leitner says the airport has actually faired well during the pandemic.

“I think we were resilient for the duration of the pandemic as you know, we’re a very big leisure market, especially in the summertime. I think we held our own between 2019 and 2021,” he said.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum report supports that.

People traveling for domestic vacations has rebounded well, but business travel is still down.

Leitner didn’t have exact numbers but expects business travel to make up less than a third of the passengers that come through Rhinelander.

He also thinks more people are appreciating what small airports have to offer.

“With the exception of a restaurant we have all the amenities of a major airport. We have rental car concessions. We have Delta airlines. We have a beautiful facility. It’s close to home for many people or it’s close to their vacation destination,” said Leitner. “When you park, you walk right into the terminal. It’s not that far. You don’t have to wait in a sea of humanity to check in or go through security. It’s just convenience.”

Leitner believes the airport could actually be doing better than pre-pandemic numbers, but air carriers are unable to offer more flights, in fact they’ve dropped some.

“I am extremely optimistic about this summer season. I know we’re going to sell to capacity that we have. As I said earlier, the demand is higher than it’s been probably in 30 years, maybe ever, this summer,” he said. “However, we’re contending with a pilot shortage and consequently a reduction in our schedule. I think it’s going to be obvious to the carriers that we need as much capacity as they can provide."

United will not be offering flights to Chicago again this summer like it did last year.

But Leitner says they’ve kept their infrastructure in place, so he’s hopeful that they’ll return.

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