Among the things I have the privilege of doing is serving as a citizen member of the Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA) board. County Board Supervisors Dale O’Brien and Jim Krems are the elected members making up Portage County’s contingent. Four others represent Marathon County. Our responsibility is to make sure the airport operates within its means, and to act on behalf of the people of Portage County.
To clear up any misconceptions, no local taxes go to support the airport. Its funding comes from the federal and state governments and from taxes fliers pay as part of their airline ticket price. The airport’s owners – Portage and Marathon counties – do, however, guarantee airport bond issues. The airport uses proceeds from the sale of bonds to pay for the local share of improvement projects, and then pays off the bonds over a period of years from its operating income.
Today, let’s take a look at some matters dealing with flying.
People who check prices for airplane tickets know it’s not cheap to fly anymore. And they know it can be fairly expensive to fly from the CWA. But that’s only part of the equation.
Despite attempts by the central Wisconsin business community and local airport representatives, the airlines serving the airport have paid little to no attention to their requests for more reasonable fares at CWA. In short, the airlines determine how much to charge for a ticket, period. Our airport board knows this has driven some customers away to other airports in Wisconsin where there’s more competition, and ticket prices are less expensive. We call that “leakage.”
While ticket costs may be cheaper at Madison or Milwaukee, for example, anyone who watches expenses needs to consider a few other matters before dismissing CWA as a jumping-off point for their travels.
The Federal Aviation Administration issues monthly breakdowns of ticket prices. A recent report shows the average fare a flier using CWA pays is $277 – or $75 more than it was a year earlier. That’s a 37-percent jump – all determined by the airlines, who for the first time in a long while, have become profitable. For them, it’s a matter of charging what the market will bear.
But if you were to drive to Appleton – the nearest airport with comparable air service to CWA – you’d find the average fare was just $248 – or $29 less than at CWA. That sounds like a good argument to use Appleton instead of CWA.
But wait – you have to drive to Appleton, and that means spending more money for fuel. And there’s the time involved – business people don’t have time to spare, and their time is worth money. So taking just those two factors into account might help you decide that the costs at CWA and Appleton are fairly comparable.
Madison’s average fare was $223, and at Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, it was $159. Competition is a major factor at those locations. But it still takes time and expense to get to those places, and that reduces the attractiveness of lower fares. And if weather is an issue, you’ll wind up paying for a night’s lodging. And there’s food, and sometimes higher parking fees.
Back in the 1980s, we thought we’d be smart and drive to the Twin Cities to save on plane tickets to Germany. In fact, we did – but on our return, we had to drive another four hours to get home, even though we were physically exhausted. A more sensible approach would have been to spend the night in a Minneapolis motel – but that would have defeated the purpose of trying to save money on our ticket.
I suspect some are thinking I’ve ditched my journalistic integrity and have become a shill for the airport at Mosinee. But my purpose in writing this column is to help you decide the best way for you to fly – it means I needed to point out the true costs of using a distant airport rather than the close-by CWA. Obviously, you can draw your own conclusions and do whatever you wish.
The airlines haven’t made travel any easier for us. Many still perceive Southwest Airlines to be a low-cost carrier, but a recent study found that at 100 airports, competing airlines had lower fares 60 percent of the time.
On a recent flight, we had to fork over an extra $80 each way to sit in an exit row. And we paid baggage fees. Together, those added costs made our “reasonably-priced” ticket fairly expensive.
Here are some other recent news items: United Airlines has begun selling expedited security screening for its Mileage Plus members at 29 airports for $9. That’s just the latest in a long string of add-on costs. Southwest charges $8 to connect your computer to its wireless network.
The New York Times has reported that most of the large airlines have put into place a new pricing system – charging you different fares depending on how much you fly, where you live and whether you’re flying for business or pleasure.
Some airlines are further reducing the space you buy – shortening the distance between rows of seats. A few are even cutting the width of a seat by an inch.
And planes are getting more crowded, as if you didn’t know. In January, North American airlines experienced a 1.5-percent rate of growth, while reducing capacity by 1 percent.
Now, the Transportation Security Administration says it will be OK to carry small pocket knives onto planes. Did the bureaucrats have any idea of how annoyed and exasperated fliers are before making that decision? (Especially after waiting 40 minutes in the security line.) Carrying small blades aboard doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me.