WisBusiness: Increase in flights helps Madison business climate

By Brian E. Clark

Business travelers have long complained about the lack of direct flights to major cities outside the Midwest from Dane County Regional Airport.

David Jones, Rayovac’s chairman, even cited poor air service to Madison when he and other top executives moved their offices and tee-times from Madison to Atlanta last year.

But things are looking up for those who use the Madison airport.

Beginning June 9, Northwest Airlines will offer non-stop service to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

That same day, American Airlines will resume direct flights from Madison to Dallas-Fort Worth.

And Allegiant Air, which already offers non-stop service to Las Vegas, will begin non-stops from Madison to Orlando’s Sanford airport on May 26. Both Orlando and Las Vegas are convention centers, as well as popular tourist destinations.

And while none of these new flights will directly affect his business travel plans, Rod Hise – head of investor relations at Third Wave Technologies – calls those non-stops a step in the right direction.

Hise logged nearly 55,000 miles in business trips in 2004, and all but one of them required connecting flights to get to his destinations – mainly on the east or west coasts.

“This is a recognition that this market is yearning for non-stops and I certainly hope there are more,” said Hise, who often drove to Milwaukee to get a direct flight to New York. To avoid Chicago’s over-crowded O’Hare, he usually flew through Minnesota and Detroit on Northwest.

On a trip to San Francisco with one day of business meetings, he often had to be out of his office and away from his family for most of three days.

“Additional direct flights to major cities would be wonderful,” Hise said. “But it all comes down to timing. Will they allow you to get in and out of a major business center in a day?

“Direct service to New York early in the morning and returning at a reasonable time at night would make my life immeasurably easier,” he said.

Additional non-stop service to major cities would also bring more commerce to Madison, said Kim Straka, a spokeswoman for the Madison Visitors and Convention Bureau.

She said Madison is a popular place for gatherings, but meeting planners have told her that the lack of non-stop service prompts them to go elsewhere.

Keith Whyte, who represents the National Council on Problem Gambling, said he was impressed with Madison and Monona Terrace when he toured the city recently. However, his board opted for St.Paul and Kansas City for the group’s annual meetings in 2006 and 2007.

“Our conference attendees come all from over the United States and from 15 nations around the world,” said Whyte. His organization would have booked 600 rooms a night for the three-day conference.

“We very much prefer to go to locations where we can get direct flights from major markets like New York, San Francisco and Atlanta,” he said. “Having to make a connecting flight is inconvenient and more expensive for our attendees.”

Straka’s group is part of an initiative called the Community Air Service Partnership to promote direct air service to Washington, D.C. The Madison Chamber and the airport also belong.

In a survey completed for the group last August, the majority of respondents said they did not use the airport because of lack of direct flights.

They also said the new service they would most like to see would be to Washington, D.C., (48 percent) Atlanta, (42 percent) Phoenix, (27 percent) Denver (26 percent) and Dallas (24 percent).

Brad Livingston, manager of the Dane County Regional Airport, said airlines are responding to unmet need by adding nonstop flights.

“There is a demand in Dane County and south central Wisconsin, both in the business and discretionary markets,” he said. “The market potential is there.”

Livingston said the resumption of Dallas-Fort Worth flights are particularly important to companies like Epic Systems because its employees deal with numerous hospitals in Texas.

Direct service to Washington, D.C., will also serve the business community, state government employees and University of Wisconsin officials who deal with research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

For vacationers, Orlando and Las Vegas are two of the most popular destinations in the country. And he said business travelers could use Las Vegas as a relatively convenient connection to other cities in the Southwest and California.

“With these flights, we are recapturing leak demand from travelers who might have driven to Milwaukee or Chicago to get a direct flight,” Livingston said.

The airport manager said he hopes he will soon be able to announce another direct flight to a major hub somewhere in the middle of the country.

“It looks promising, but I can’t be any more specific,” he said. “We will keep working diligently to improve access.

“We see this as economic development,” he said. “We have a vibrant economy here. But to get airlines to add capacity in a troubled (airline) market takes work.

“We show the carriers that there is travel demand and identify companies that are potential customers,” he said. “Ultimately, the decisions are up to the airlines.”

Paul Soglin, an Epic administrator who deals with travel, said his company recently sent more than 100 employees to a conference in Dallas. They all made connections, either through Chicago, Detroit or Minneapolis.

“Obviously, it would have been better to have a direct flight,” said Soglin, a former Madison mayor.

“We would welcome more non-stops to places like San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles,” he said. “But we don’t lobby for any particular city or any airline.”

Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for Northwest, said the direct service from Madison to Washington, D.C. is an effort by his airline to assert itself in the upper Midwest.

“In 2000 and 2001, we studied where our customers are located,” he said. “We identified seven cities in the upper Midwest. As a result, Milwaukee and Madison are getting more non-stops. We call it our ‘Heartland’ program. And Green Bay is getting all jet service.”

Ebenhoch said the Badger State has been a loyal market for Northwest.

“We are grateful people have stuck with us,” he said. “As for the future, we will add capacity judiciously with measured growth.

“We are focused on making the D.C. service to Madison a success,” he said. “But we are also looking for other opportunities.”

Terri Trippler, a Minnesota-based airline industry analyst, called Northwest an “airline on the move.”

“They are expanding their reach and are really growing in the upper Midwest,” he said. “They want to dominate and Wisconsin should benefit from that.”

In Milwaukee, Northwest will have added seven direct flights by June 9, including two from Milwaukee to Denver. It also will increase the number of non-stops it offers from Milwaukee to Boston, Detroit, Kansas City and New York.

The new schedule includes the most flights Northwest – which is second in the Milwaukee market behind Midwest Airlines – has offered in more than 14 years.

At Brown County’s Austin Straubel International Airport, director Thomas Miller said he is working with three airlines to add non-stop service to new markets from northeastern Wisconsin.

“I expect to have an announcement in 60 to 90 days,” he said. “But it would be premature to say anything now.”

His airport – Wisconsin’s third busiest – now has connections to Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago and is served by five airlines.

“Our traffic has been growing steadily,” he said. “It’s just a question of where carriers can find aircraft time to fly routes.”