Mitchell International Airport sees gradual increase in passengers with some Memorial Day travel

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- With states beginning to reopen and Memorial Day weekend around the corner, Milwaukee’s airport says they’re slowly seeing a comeback.

Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport says they saw their lowest numbers in mid-April since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since then officials say there’s been a gradual increase in the number of travelers.

“What we’re seeing now is a little bit more of a leisure travel, fares are very low right now,” said Harold Mester, Director of Public Affairs and Marketing at MKE Mitchell International Airport.

People say they’re traveling to and from Milwaukee to see family this weekend.

“We’re going to go up to the cottage to the lake,” said Ruth Pagan, who came in to Milwaukee from Texas.  

“I actually am going back to Texas tomorrow again on a flight, so I’m going from Thursday to Monday, so totally comfortable traveling,” said traveler CJ Murray.

Even with a slow growth for Memorial Day weekend, travel at Mitchell International is still down significantly. May of last year, the airport saw nearly 19,000 passengers a day.

“The passenger traffic is down about 80 to 90-percent compared to what it normally would be around the same time of year previously,” said Mester.

Economists say for now it’s a nightmare for the airline industry, and the only comparable way to guess how long it would take for them to recover would be to study what happened after the September 11 tragedy.

”9/11 brought the industry back I think five to six years, it took about that much time to recover,” said Avik Chakrabarti, an Associate Economics Professor with UW-Milwaukee.

Airports have ramped up cleaning on high-touch surfaces and provided hand sanitizer stations. Airlines are also deep cleaning and putting in their own guidelines.

“All airlines serving this airport are requiring face coverings for all passengers to board the aircraft,” adds Mester.

Travelers say while some flights make it easy to social distance, others remain full.

“From San Antonio to Dallas we had good social distancing, they actually moved us from seat to seat, but the one coming from Dallas to Milwaukee was pretty packed,” said Pagan.

“I would say 75-percent of people kept their masks on, all of the crew and staff did,” says Murray.

The CDC says because of the air filtration, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights, but there may be a risk of getting COVID-19 on crowded flights if there are travelers with COVID-19.

Experts say to help airlines recover they must realize travelers care about safety first.

“Individuals are no longer going to be that worried about cost as they would about safety,” adds Chakrabarti.

Mester expects it will take years for Mitchell International Airport to recover to its regular passenger numbers.

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