With a record number of passengers, increased capacity on all airlines and about $70 million in construction projects underway in just about every corner of the facility, Appleton International Airport is reaching new heights.
“I think we’re very aggressive in our pursuit of additional growth,” says airport director Abe Weber. “We’re constantly out there, talking to each and every airline. We’re inviting them into our community.”
An increase in the number of passengers through the Greenville airport is happening at the same time as large construction projects on the airport’s property, leading ATW to become a second mecca of aviation in Northeast Wisconsin (the first being the Experimental Aircraft Association and its facilities and events in Oshkosh).
Weber’s efforts to further airline growth, many geared at accommodating and attracting more travelers, are paying off — the airport has seen growth among each of its four airlines, which have expanded their capacity and added more flights and destinations.
“When we started to win and have success, we saw more and more business travelers in Northeast Wisconsin recognizing how convenient it was to fly from the Appleton airport,” Weber says. “It was like a snowball.”
In fact, Bloomberg named Appleton the fourth-fastest-growing airport in the country in May 2018. A few of the recent additions include:
• Allegiant Air increased aircraft size and added more flights, including a new direct flight to Fort Myers/Punta Gorda, Fla., that started Nov. 16.
• Delta increased aircraft size and added more flights.
• United Express (Air Wisconsin) added more flights, including service to Denver that started in June.
• American Airlines launched service in 2017 with two flights daily to Chicago; it also recently added a third flight and increased aircraft size.
“Each carrier has grown in its own way, and it’s led to a significant increase,” Weber says. “Right now, we’re sitting at 24.4 percent growth year over year through the end of September, and it’s just absolutely incredible.”
The airlines have taken somewhat of a build-it-and-they-will-fly approach — as they’ve added seats, the business community has responded, Weber says. Through the end of August, the number of airline seats had increased by 15 percent. The number of passengers had increased by 24 percent.
“We’re showing that if our carriers provide more or larger airplanes, our community will not only fill it, but fill it to a high level,” Weber says.
The airport and its partners are responding to that potential. This summer, its two major tenants — Gulfstream and Air Wisconsin — each began expansion projects, and in October the airport broke ground on a regional aircraft rescue and firefighting facility (ARFF) in partnership with Fox Valley Technical College. The airport itself is working on its own terminal renovation and expansion to accommodate the growing number of commercial travelers.
In February, Gulfstream announced it would build a $40 million, 180,000-square-foot maintenance, repair and overhaul facility.
The Gulfstream fleet is growing worldwide, with more than 2,800 business jets in service, and the size of the jets also is growing, says Ron Aldrich, general manager/vice president of Gulfstream Appleton. The Appleton facility is approved to maintain even the largest Gulfstream jet models, and the expansion will include a 102,000-square-foot hangar that can accommodate 12 large aircraft. In total, the 180,000-square-foot facility will include space for offices, shops and customers.
Appleton is an ideal facility, as it is centrally located for customers and has a 20-year history of providing outstanding maintenance support and aircraft completions, Aldrich says, adding the expansion increases maintenance capacity. Gulfstream plans to add about 200 employees, and hiring is underway, though Gulfstream faces the same challenges as other companies in finding enough skilled labor.
“While it is sometimes challenging to hire qualified personnel in the many fields where we need them, we do have a strong resource in and collaboration with Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh,” Aldrich says.
The facility is expected to open in 2019.
When Air Wisconsin announced it would fly for United Airlines/United Express, Weber said the airport put together a plan to partner on a maintenance facility for the company. In August, the airport broke ground on the Air Wisconsin facility, which includes a 30,000-square-foot hangar and 70,000 square feet of office space. The hangar will accommodate four regional jets flying for United Airlines, three of which fly to Chicago and one to Denver each day.
“When we announced that project, they talked about adding 80 maintenance jobs, and the good thing about all of those jobs is they are high-paying, family-supporting jobs,” Weber says.
Emergency training center
When a regional airport rescue firefighting training center in Duluth, Minn., announced it would close in 2015, Appleton airport officials proposed to the Federal Aviation Administration that Appleton could host a regional, state-of-the-art training facility. With its partnership with FVTC and its Public Safety Training Center, it made sense, Weber says.
The airport and FVTC broke ground in October on the new ARFF project, which should be done by spring 2020. The $14 million center is funded by a $12 million FAA grant and almost $2 million from the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics.
With Oshkosh Corp. as a global leader in manufacturing ARRF response vehicles, having additional firefighters in the area is definitely a positive, Weber says.
ATW is working on its own projects both inside and outside the airport terminal. An $8 million terminal renovation project launched a year ago is aimed at improving the customer experience to help attract more of those business travelers.
The airport expanded its security checkpoint, updated restaurants and the gift shop, and is upgrading the baggage claim area and ticket counters. The airport also is installing a room for nursing mothers and expects it to be finished by the end of the year, Weber says.
The airport has invested in parking improvements including two solar canopies in the short-term parking lot, with installation of two more planned for spring. It also anticipates the launch of a valet parking service this month, in time for holiday travel.
Weber and Patrick Tracey, the airport’s marketing manager, meet often with the business community to understand its needs for air service and preferred destinations.
“We believe that employee retention and recruitment is an issue that every business is facing right now,” Tracey says. “We think ATW can have a positive effect on business travelers by allowing the employees to fly right from home.”
Overall, ATW’s goal has been to create a more convenient, less stressful travel experience — reducing “traveler friction,” or the wear and tear on employees when they’re on the road, Tracey says.
“It’s a short drive home, and the travelers will value those extra moments with their family, to get home for the soccer game instead of having to drive back and forth to airports,” Tracey says. “We’ve built our whole customer marketing plan on those concepts.”
FVTC aviation program enrollment grows
Just as Appleton International Airport has seen its passenger list grow, Fox Valley Technical College’s aviation program in Oshkosh also is experiencing a significant increase in enrollment and retention.
“The word is getting out that aviation is an incredible career to get into,” says Jared Huss, chief instructor and department chair for the FVTC aeronautics program.
Because of a pilot and technician shortage, more people are recognizing aviation as a good career choice, and Huss thinks that’s “a big contributor to the increase in interest that we’ve seen.”
A year ago, the flight training program saw a 41 percent retention rate from its first to second year. Now, that number is at 86 percent, Huss says. New enrollment has more than doubled from 12 students last year to 27 this year, with a program total of about 45 students. Huss anticipates the program will see 50 to 60 students in fall 2019.
While the college is actively recruiting students and marketing the program through fly-ins and job fairs, growth can be attributed to systemic changes within the program that have made it much easier for students to pursue their degree, Huss says. During the last year, he has worked aggressively to identify and engineer ways to eliminate barriers to student success.
“We’ve really been able to break out of the typical collegiate flight training mold,” Huss says. “We’re really developing flexible pathways for students to reach their goals and enter this industry.”
For example, working within the academic calendar created challenges because of the variables that come with flight training, such as Federal Aviation Administration requirements, weather and maintenance delays, and student proficiency. Now the program allows for staggered admission as well as flexible timing on completion of skill sets, allowing students to take more time if they need it or continue with training without waiting for the next semester. Additionally, accelerated students can still pay by the calendar, meaning they can start training before the next semester, but wait to pay tuition until the calendar semester starts.
“The college has been very supportive of these outside-the-box kinds of concepts,” Huss says.
FVTC’s aviation program includes two pilot tracks and Airframe & Powerplant Mechanics and Aircraft Electronics programs. The program sends many of those mechanical and electronics graduates to both Gulfstream and Air Wisconsin. Additionally, Air Wisconsin hires FVTC aviation students before graduation and recruits them into its airman trainee program. With enough flight hours, some pilots can eventually move on to United Airlines.