Final Destination: A lot goes into determining where we can fly

When you’re in hour seven of a 14-hour travel day with two boys younger than three, your mind goes to unexpected places. Such was the case for me last month, four hours into our flight home from Los Angeles and descending into Detroit. 

My wife and I had taken our boys for a long weekend in LA to introduce our nine-month-old to family there, and so far the return trip was going smoother than the flight out (no vomit, no blowouts, none of the forehead sweat that comes when you’ve run out of baby clothes and are down to your last diaper 90 minutes away from your destination). A two-hour layover awaited us in Detroit before our puddle-hop flight to Green Bay, as did the long drive to our Sister Bay home in the snow.

But for a moment, my mind was blank, allowing space for a question to slip in. Earlier in the day, I’d read that Allegiant Airlines was adding direct flights to Portland, Oregon, out of the Appleton airport, which got me thinking about how airports decide which flights to offer. 

Fort Myers – or basically anywhere in Florida or to the far south – makes perfect sense for the Appleton airport to offer. Nashville, too. But Portland, Oregon? It’s a cool city, but I wondered whether a large chunk of central and northeastern Wisconsinites are really clamoring to go somewhere grayer than February in the Fox Valley. 

So I called up Marty Piette, airport director at Green Bay’s Austin Straubel Airport, to get a little insight into how a new route is selected. 

“It’s a long process,” he said. “It’s 100% an airline decision, but as an airport, we try to influence that. We try to put forward routes that would be useful for the community and profitable for the airline.”

The airlines, of course, have a ton of data about people’s flying habits at their disposal: which destinations flyers ultimately connect to, which zip code they live in, which days people want to fly to particular locations, whether they’re regular flyers or one-offs. In addition, they know the costs that come with each of those routes.

“They have it down to every mile flown and the revenue generated by each of those miles,” Piette said. 

Airports in Green Bay, Appleton and Madison aren’t competing for flights with each other as much as they are with 450 other commercial airports. 

“The airline can put its assets anywhere they think they can make the most money,” Piette said. “They’re constrained by the number of gates they have at O’Hare or Dallas, or the number of planes, or the number of pilots. They might have hundreds of places they’d like to serve, but it comes down to which of those hundreds can make the most financial sense.”

But although they have a truckload of data at their fingertips about flying habits, they don’t have as much information about where people would go if they could. That’s where the airport staff members come in, when they meet with route planners from a hub such as Dallas, Denver or Chicago.

“We try to tell the community’s story,” Piette said. “Titletown Tech is incubating high-tech companies. Green Bay Packaging is a half-a-billion-dollar paper mill. The airlines don’t know those stories. If they see potential for continued growth, they’ll try it. They don’t want to bring a route in and have to yank it out six months or two months later. We might show them that we have this company that would help support a route with this many people flying each day. Every airport in the country is doing the same thing we are.”

Tourism and convention centers can come into play as well, supporting new routes with marketing efforts to drive people to the new destination. 

Those nonstop offerings are vital to regional airports. Piette said that half of the flight market for Austin Straubel drives to Milwaukee or Chicago to fly. That’s why the 2019 addition of Frontier seasonal service to Denver was a big deal for the Green Bay airport. It’s since added Orlando and extended service to Denver to 11 months a year. In 2020, Sun Country came in and offered direct flights to Fort Myers, Phoenix, Orlando and Las Vegas. 

“It keeps more people flying locally than traveling down to Milwaukee and Chicago. Frontier and Sun aren’t looking for connecting traffic. That all points to the leisure traveler,” Piette said. 

Unfortunately, nobody is flying direct to Ephraim International anytime soon.

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