The travel industry suffered some of the greatest damage during the pandemic, but as more people are vaccinated, they have begun traveling again. It’s something Abe Weber, director of the Appleton International Airport, knows well and is looking forward to. Before COVID-19 hit, ATW was listed among the fastest-growing airports in the country, and Weber expects it to remain near the top as it continues to add more flights and airlines.
COVID-19 hit the Appleton International Airport hard.
Abe Weber: The entire industry was hit hard by the pandemic and we were not the exception. Think back to everything that happened. Our airport staff stayed hopeful, and I think we stayed agile in our communication to our community to make sure we were providing a safe and healthy travel experience for those who needed to get out and travel. We did that by introducing a branded clean program. We were the first in the state to come out with a program like that. It was ATW Clean, which ensured consistent and efficient cleaning methods for our airport employees and our travelers.
What kind of enhancements or equipment did you add as part of ATW Clean?
We did all the regular things — social distancing, the rigorous cleaning methods, the plexiglass barriers, the floor decals. We also worked with all of our vendors, including the Transportation Security Administration, to ensure a touchless path from parking gate through the checkpoint all the way to the airplane gate. I would say ATW Clean gave our travelers confidence that this was going to be a safe and healthy travel experience. Many of these initiatives that we’ve put in place will remain because they aid in that mission.
When did you start seeing traffic pick up again?
Our lowest day was April 19, 2020, when we had 19 passengers go through, but since then, every day we see more traffic coming back. In the fourth quarter of 2020, we definitely saw a larger uptick in travel, which has continued into 2021. We’ve seen more people getting out and traveling, mostly for leisure. People want to get out and visit their friends and family after being cooped up for a year. We’re seeing a lot of families pass through our gates. You know, no one wants to have to drive two-plus hours through tolls and construction just to get to the airport. More and more people are choosing the Appleton Airport because of our convenience, safety and healthy travel experiences.
What about business travel?
Before COVID, our split was 70 percent business, 30 percent leisure and now that’s reversed. We have seen some business travel coming back, but it’s been slow and coming back slowly over time. As more people are vaccinated and willing to venture out, business travel will pick up as more conventions and events are held.
Preliminary June passenger numbers show we have reached 97 percent of our June 2019 passenger numbers, leading the state of Wisconsin in the return to travel. With the travel industry, comparisons to 2019 have become widely accepted as the best metric for business trends. Business travel was noticeably up in June, with more expected as companies returned to the office in July.
The number of passengers and the number of flights and airlines have increased at the airport. How do you keep growing?
I would say that going back five years, we started with three airlines and seven nonstop destinations. And today we’ve doubled that. We have four airlines and 14 nonstop destinations. The reason we’ve been able to add flights is because our community continues to choose to fly out of the Appleton Airport. There’s a saying in the industry that goes, airlines and airplanes go where the people are. When people choose to fly out of the Appleton Airport, they’re giving a vote of confidence to our community and telling the airlines we want to fly to this airport.
We’re aggressive when talking with the airlines. We tell the story of our community and where our residents like to travel. For leisure — especially in winter — it’s Arizona and Florida. With business, they’re looking at places our travelers go or where they can connect with other flights to get them to their destination, such as our latest flight to Charlotte. The community has responded and now we’ve added a second flight. We draw passengers south to Oshkosh and then halfway to Green Bay, and then 25 to 35 minutes to the east and west. But for some of our flights, like those from Allegiant, we cover all of Northeast Wisconsin and even draw passengers from the UP.
The airport property has several other businesses on it, such as Gulfstream, Air Wisconsin and the new airport rescue and firefighting (ARFF) training facility. How do new and expansion projects come about?
The ARFF was something that was in the works for years. Along with our partner, Fox Valley Technical College, and some help on the back end from Oshkosh Corp. since they make emergency access vehicles, we put a business plan together and were able to convince the FAA and Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics that there was a gap in training facilities in the region. We were then able to get funds for the construction of the regional state-of-the-art training center. This facility in our backyard now provides training for firefighters throughout the state, the country and around the globe. If you drove by today, you would see equipment for Egypt. How is that for global reach? It also benefits all our local firefighters and first responders to have such world-class training right in their backyards.
As for Air Wisconsin and Gulfstream, both continue to grow and they choose to grow here thanks to our great workforce. That talented workforce allows companies like Gulfstream to deliver the quality of product their customers require. Secondly, I think our staff maintain the airport facilities and our airfield to a high level of detail. We rank and score high on our regulatory FAA inspections, and I believe that gives confidence to those businesses that they can operate safely and efficiently on our airfield.