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Appleton airport gets $40 million facelift

Increased traffic fuels expansion – on pace for record year in 2022

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December 28, 2022

APPLETON – Flying in and out of the Appleton International Airport has gotten a lot easier in the last year – Airport Director Abe Weber said that’s thanks to $40 million worth of infrastructure improvements.

Weber said the airport is set to have its busiest year on record.

“Consumers and business travelers are realizing it’s faster and easier to fly out of Appleton, no matter their destination,” he said. “We experienced growth in all areas.”

Based on statistics from January through October, combined with projections for November and December, Weber said more than 850,000 passengers will arrive and depart from the Appleton airport, making it the third-busiest airport in the state behind Milwaukee and Madison, respectively.

“Compared to 2021 – which saw about 720,000 passengers use the airport – we’ll see about a 20% increase this year,” he said.

According to airport statistics provided to The Business News, General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee had more than 4.1 million passengers through late September, while Dane County Regional Airport in Madison had almost 1.4 million.
Through late October, the Appleton airport had more than 700,000 passengers, while Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport had slightly more than 500,000.

Weber said since the new year, the increased traffic can mainly be attributed to a surge in leisure travel rebounding following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Appleton airport director Abe Weber said the airport saw a 20% increase in passengers this year compared to last. Rich Palzewic Photo

“Some of the increase is also because of our expanded airline routes,” he said. “Our airline partners started four (new) routes this year – with Allegiant Airlines starting service to Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota, Florida, as well as Denver. American Airlines brought back Charlotte, so that brings our total nonstop destinations to 15.”
2023 projections
Weber said the airport expects to see another increase in passengers in 2023.

“As business travelers start to come back, we are hoping for another increase,” he said. “We have a strong leisure product with Allegiant and all the destinations it provides.”

Weber said, to some extent, fewer travel restrictions after the pandemic have helped, too.

“Passengers want to travel again,” he said. “They want to get back to adventures and visit family, friends and relatives. Plus, a lot of businesses that weren’t traveling need to get out there and visit their clients and get back to sales. We’ve seen fares creep up a bit, especially when seats get limited in the market, but not a tremendous increase.”

Weber said there are several reasons why passengers are choosing the Appleton airport over other airports.

“A couple of things have led to our growth,” he said. “Aside from all the improvements, I would say fewer people are driving to Milwaukee and Chicago to start their trip by car – it’s not as convenient. They’re staying local, flying out of Appleton. With the Allegiant product, we are bringing people in from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Appleton.”

Major improvements
Weber said infrastructure improvements were necessary to better handle the growth in passenger traffic – both at the commercial airport and the private flight center.

“The improvements to the grounds and facilities were funded primarily through government grants,” he said. “Of the $40 million investment, 84% of projects (started in 2022) were funded by federal grants, 7% by state grants and 9% by the airport.”

// International Airport director Abe Weber said the airport could see 850,000 passengers this year. Rich Palzewic Photo

Weber said governmental grants were awarded through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Bureau of Aeronautics.

One of the improvements, he said, includes a major expansion of the concrete ramp used for aircraft landing and taxing.
“Expanding the airport’s ramp means we can accommodate our increased air traffic, plus larger planes in and out of Appleton,” Weber said. “A larger plane means we can handle more passengers to more destinations. Construction on the expanded ramp is scheduled to begin in 2023.”

The improvements also include the construction of a general aviation hangar at the Appleton Flight Center, a facility used by private aircraft.

Weber said the two existing hangars are full and a third is needed to serve the growing number of private planes arriving and departing from the flight center.

He said in 2022, aviation traffic increased 28.4% over pre-pandemic levels.

In addition to the airport’s expansion projects, Weber said private partners are expanding facilities and operations at the airport, as well.

“Gulfstream has started work on a paint hangar in partnership with the airport,” he said. “The 73,000-square-foot project is expected to be completed in 2023.”

Weber said Allegiant Air is also expanding its services – adding a third plane to its Appleton fleet in October.

“The Airbus 320 seats up to 186 passengers and is one of the largest planes to service Appleton,” he said. “For passengers, the plane features wider aisles, wider seats and more overhead storage, but the impact is beyond travel. The airline will increase staffing for pilots, flight attendants and support staff to serve more passengers.”

Weber said the increased traffic, more airline routes and larger planes has prompted the need for other improvements as well, which include:
Expanding the commercial terminal ramp to accommodate current traffic and prepare for future growth.Expanding a service road used for refueling airplanes.Expansion of the Northwest Business Park Road to provide access to future development lots and Hwy 76.Installing a water loop on the west side of the airfield to manage future growth at the business park.Operations added two boarding gates, including one jet bridge – the enclosed, movable connectors that extend from the terminal gate to the airplane. Weber said this increases the total airport’s number of jet bridges to seven, making it faster to serve more planes arriving and departing.The express parking area has tripled in size due to increased customer use. Weber said the service allows passengers to pull up to the terminal doors, bring their keys to the welcome desk and drop them off. Upon their return, passengers receive a text message confirming their vehicle is ready and waiting – just steps from the front door. Weber said this service is the same price as long-term parking, The parking system has also been upgraded to provide ticketless options. Passengers may provide a credit card number or cell phone number to use instead of a paper ticket. These identification numbers are confirmed by the passenger upon exit from the lot.
Weber said the numerous changes made to the airport’s technology focus on overall customer experience.

“From the time they enter the drive lane until they get to their boarding gate,” he said. “Our express parking is a great example of that. We’ve upgraded our parking lot facilities to make it easier and ticketless. You can scan in with your phone or via license plate recognition. We’re looking at our vending options and being able to pay via your mobile phone – trying to make that a seamless process from start to finish.”

Moving up the ranks
Due to the increases the Appleton airport has seen in passengers and flights, Weber said it was recently reclassified to a small-hub airport.

“The classification recognizes the growth in passengers and flights and places the airport into a separate funding category,” he said.

Weber said to meet the small-hub classification, an airport must carry .05-.25% of commercial flights nationwide.
“This classification elevates our status with major airlines and elevates our ability to acquire grant funding for future projects,” he said.

Show me the money
Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson said the airport’s importance spans countywide.

“In Outagamie County, we have about 30 departments and provide 30 different services – everything from reliable air travel, solid waste and recycling, criminal justice reform and a whole host of issues,” he said. “I’m confident in saying the Appleton International Airport is the crown jewel of the Outagamie County family.”

Outagamie County Executive Director Thomas Nelson said the Appleton airport could soon reach a total economic development of $1 billion. Rich Palzewic Photo

Nelson said since he’s been county executive, the economic impact of the Appleton airport has more than doubled.

“We now support a minimum of 3,000 jobs – directly and indirectly – in Outagamie County and in the region,” he said. “When we last did an economic impact statement (of the airport), it was about $600 million.”

Nelson said he has high expectations for the airport’s future.

“In the next year or two, we are going to bring total economic development up to a billion dollars,” he said. “That might seem like a lot of money – and it is – and challenging for a smaller hub airport, but it’s very doable because we have doubled the impact just in the last six or seven years.”

Nelson said though passengers have a choice of Green Bay, Milwaukee or Madison, they choose Appleton.

“We continue to hear from different airlines how they want to expand here,” he said. “It’s because of the leadership at the airport. Next year, when we double down and triple down with the expansion at the terminal, that is going to be the make-or-break point. That is going to be the point at which this airport goes from a sleepy regional to a smaller hub to a major player in the Midwest and throughout the country.”

Nelson said passengers look for consistency – something the Appleton airport offers.

“They look for good service and a good product,” he said. “A lot of people traveling here are local – people who come here not just once a year or twice a year but regularly. They know from these experiences, this is a first-class airport. We’ve provided exceptional service and will continue to provide exceptional service.”

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