Abe Weber began his tenure at the Outagamie County Regional Airport in 2013 as it emerged from the Great Recession and a down cycle in air services provided by the major carriers. Now, with several capital and tenant expansions completed and the airport celebrating its 50th anniversary, Insight’s Senior Associate Editor Sean P. Johnson sat down with Weber to discuss the airport’s new name and new services.
Our largest project right now is the addition of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility. We’ve received conditional approval from the agency in Washington, developed a design for the facility and that design is out for bids.
The customs facility came about because of our airport tenants with international operations or corporate flight operations flying internationally. It will provide direct access into the Fox Valley area for aircraft departing from international locations. Tenants with corporate flight service and local businesses with a global presence will receive customs clearances directly at the airport — soon to be Appleton International Airport — and not have to land elsewhere (currently, those operations must land at an airport with customs service before continuing on to Appleton). It benefits customers coming from outside of the U.S. for sales calls or business meetings. At this point in time, it’s not a facility that will serve the general flying public. It’s being constructed as part of the general aviation facility and will host aircraft of 20 passengers or less, as well as some air cargo operations.
Once the new facility is online and operational, we will begin using the new designation of Appleton International Airport. It signifies not only the new capacity, but the Outagamie County Board moving forward after engaging the business community and public. They determined this is an important direction for us to pursue. Of course there are challenges for regional airports as the major carriers continue to change their business model. Our strategy will always go back to working with local business and our community to develop their vision of an air service product. We group those stories together and take them to our current air service providers, talk with air service operators not currently serving the airport and work to always provide a quality air service product.
As a regional airport, we are not competing just with airports an hour and a half away, we are competing with every airport in the country. There are only three airlines left with a full network. Those airlines are reducing the number of 50-seat regional jets — which are no longer profitable — and are switching to the 75- to 100-seat jet. We need our community to know that if we want to continue with a quality air product, we need to be able to fill those larger jets and compete well from a national perspective.
We have had recent successes such as Allegiant Air adding additional flights around Christmas and spring break. We’ve had great success with Delta upgrading to a narrow-body, mainline aircraft. To us, that shows the community supports the service and values the quick, close convenience the airport offers.
Our strategy has to be about more than air service. We want to diversify our revenue stream to keep our costs low not only to retain current air carriers, but attract new carriers. That means helping tenants (such as our fixed-base operator), grow by improving facilities, and adding new tenants such as FVTC’s $32.5 million public safety training center. We see ourselves as an economic driver for the region. Our economic impact is more than $400 million in output. There are more than 2,600 employees in businesses located here. We need to make sure that we can continue to foster its growth.
The future of the air service here are those 75- to 100-seat narrow-body mainline aircraft. We will need to communicate the importance of supporting and filling the seats out of Appleton. If we don’t, we could see the airlines replace multiple flights made by the smaller jets with one larger aircraft. I think we are going to see a shift in passenger trends where the passengers would prefer the quick, close convenience that we can provide.