By Brian E. Clark
Passenger traffic is climbing at the Dane County Airport, and that bodes well for the regional economy, according to the man who runs the airfield.
“We were up 15 percent year over year for February and 9 percent year-to-date,” said Brad Livingston, who has been the airport’s director since 2003.
Part of the increase, he acknowledged, is due to the past winter’s mild weather.
But business use of the airport is strong and the facility could see as many as 1.6 passengers this year, the highest figure since 2006. The facility’s best year, he noted, was in 2004, when nearly 1.7 million people used it.
“Carriers have gradually added more seats,” he said. “And demand – especially among businesses – has picked up. Planes are now averaging about 84 percent full.”
Many companies reduced the number of employees they sent out on planes during the recession, but Livingston said forecasts show that domestic business travel should soon return to pre-2008 levels.
“It’s healthy, it’s good,” said Livingston, who has worked at the airport for nearly two decades. He called the facility “pre-eminent” for a city the size of Madison and said the upgrades completed in 2006 — at no cost to local taxpayers — give local business and leisure travelers access to first-class aviation infrastructure.
Livingston said Madison and the surrounding region are “blessed with some companies that are very successful, and some of them do quite a lot of travel to support their business model, both domestically and internationally.”
Though there are complaints that the airport does not have the number of flights or the low prices available at Milwaukee or Chicago airports, Livingston said the Dane County facility does a good job of serving the needs of regional business travelers.
“We have the legacy carriers who provide both domestic and one-stop access to the global marketplace. We have companies that absolutely need that. As you can appreciate, we have some tech companies for whom air traffic is critically important.”
He cited Epic Systems and Promega as two healthcare firms that send hundreds of employees through the airport each week. Epic also brings in numerous clients for training. In addition, he said UW-Madison officials and scientists are major users of the facility.
Livingston said his airport is competing with other similar-sized communities around the country for more flights and bigger planes.
“We’re always trying to educate our carriers about our marketplace and the successes of some of our businesses that need their services,” he said.
But he said high fuel costs mean no airlines will make a profit during the first quarter, which makes them cautious about expanding rapidly.
“Many people don’t realize that carriers pay a penalty per barrel … called the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crack_spread“>crack spread,” he said. “That is the extra cost for the production and distribution of jet fuel, which can run $30 a barrel. So when you see the price of West Texas Crude in the $120 range, what the carriers are actually paying can be $150.”
Livingston said many in aviation hope to one day wean the industry from petroleum-based fuels.
“The airlines and the government are both looking at using biofuels,” he said.
“And we have a company here in Madison – Virent, Inc. – that is on the leading edge of inventing processes to create those types of fuels. … I think we are close to seeing a refinery being fully utilized for this purpose and that’s exciting for this industry. You could conceivably in the near future see refineries open and a petroleum-devoid process be implemented.”
In the meantime, Linvingston said he is pleased that Delta will begin flying larger planes from the Dane County Airport starting July 11.
After that date, nearly 75 percent of the airline’s flights will be on larger, two-class planes, including Airbus A320s, A319s, MD88s, MD80s, and MD90s.
“When you look at our total seats for this summer compared to last summer, we are up about 7 percent. So we’re optimistic that we’ll have a stronger summer and a stronger performance by the airport compared to last year.”