Northwoods Commerce: Passenger use soars at Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport
If there’s any one place that embodies the word “anticipation,” that place would be an airport. The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport is no exception. Even in between flights-when the airport is quiet, when the water cascading down the vibrant blue waterfall fountain is the only sound in the lobby, when the luggage carousel is still and empty, and the ticket counters are vacant-anyone who’s hooked on traveling, who loves boarding a plane and soaring off to new places can almost smell the anticipation in the air.
And the men in charge of the airport, manager Joe Brauer and airport commission chairman Bob Heck, have every right to anticipate that this facility’s star is on the rise.
“Jet service means everything,” says Bob Heck, referring to the daily jet service that whisks passengers to and from Milwaukee and Minneapolis. “We think there are a lot of better things to come.”
While other airports around the state are seeing declines in the numbers of users, Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport is actually seeing a significant jump. And many customers like what they’re seeing.
“When people come off the plane in Rhinelander, we give them the ‘wow’ factor,” says Joe Brauer. It’s easy to see why travelers who deplane here would be impressed with the facility’s look and its atmosphere. But really, even locals who haven’t been to the airport in a while will be surprised at what they find.
This small airport has a big impact in many ways, and not only in terms of service and convenience. The airport also has an immense economic impact on the region. More than 200,000 people utilize the facility each year, renting cars, visiting the businesses housed in the terminal building and at the air industrial park, or of course, flying in and out of Rhinelander. The airport’s significance, in fact, extends well beyond Oneida County. Of those who fly out of Rhinelander, 12 percent come from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Bringing Rhinelander into the game
The airport has gone through many changes over the years, and one of the most significant developments was the arrival of Frontier Airlines, a low-cost carrier in April.
“Frontier has really brought us into the game,” Brauer says. Before Frontier Airlines began its nonstop service between Rhinelander and Milwaukee, “We were only carrying about 20 percent of our local traffic in the area,” he notes. But since April 2011, when Frontier entered the picture, the number of users has jumped 35 percent compared to April 2010. Factor in the nonstop service to Minneapolis that Delta Airlines offers, and it’s evident that access to major hubs from Rhinelander is now easier than ever. The jump in users is due to more than jet service. “People who would normally go to a competitive airport are coming here because it’s cheaper,” says Brauer.
A comparison between flights from Rhinelander and another airport elsewhere in the state illustrates that. Granted, airfares fluctuate like crazy, but here’s an example: At the time of this writing, the difference in fares for a round trip flight originating in Rhinelander and ending in Washington, DC, compared to a flight originating at a competing airport more than two hours away, was less than $20. Factor in the cost of driving to that other airport, and Rhinelander’s facility becomes even more attractive.
The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport is actually more complex than one might expect, and its importance in the area is growing. Several new hangars have been built in the last four years alone. Four car rental agencies serve the airport, and in addition to its passenger service, the facility is also vital to businesses in the area in terms of shipping and receiving. Many of those attending the numerous camps scattered throughout the Northwoods are able to do so because of convenient access to the airport, and when the U.S. Forest Service sends area firefighters to combat fires in other parts of the country, they fly out of Rhinelander.
A tradition of innovation
The Rhinelander airport’s smaller size isn’t an indication that security is less of a concern here than at other facilities. “We are very, very responsive to homeland security,” Brauer says, noting that security equipment is very up-to-date. “We were the first Category 4 airport in the country to get the CT-80,” he notes, referring to the equipment that scans baggage in 3-D. There are currently no full-body scanners at the Rhinelander airport, but Brauer says the facility is ready to accommodate them if they do make their way here. The Transportation and Safety Administration staff in Rhinelander are “user-friendly,” he notes, but they are as vigilant here as they are in larger airports.
Acquisition of the CT-80 isn’t the only “first” for which Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport is known. Perhaps the airport’s most notable innovation is its plane de-icing system, a heated hangar that de-ices planes faster and in a more environmentally-friendly manner than the glycol applications used at other airports. Airports that use glycol to de-ice planes must build retaining ponds to hold the toxic chemical that runs off the planes. The heated hangar at Rhinelander is designed to contain the toxic chemical. In addition, after a plane is de-iced with glycol, ice can still build up on it while it waits to take off. Using the heated hangar concept to de-ice planes eliminates that problem. It took eight years of negotiations with people in Washington, DC and help from then-Congressman Dave Obey, but Rhinelander’s airport became the first in the world to feature the system. After its installation in 1998, aviation personnel from all over the world came to Rhinelander to check out the system.
Over the years, there has been a steady stream of innovations at the airport. “As our money comes in, we’re constantly doing our updates,” Brauer explains.
“We’re aggressive that way,” Heck agrees. Rhinelander’s airport was the first in the country to install a disabled passenger lift that helps people in wheelchairs to board planes more easily. The boarding bridge at the airport brought the facility even more up-to-date. A new firehouse is in the works, and Brauer explains that architects are looking at installing “green” elements to the new building, such as skylights and sensors that only turn on lights when movement is detected.
“It’s for the customer,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. Our whole theme here is customer service. It’s one of the edges I think we have.” As he and Bob Heck stroll through the airport, pointing out its features, he notes the Wi-Fi stations that customers can use free of charge. “Airlines pull perks down,” Brauer notes. “But the airport commission adds perks.” Even the airport’s new website, fly-rhi.org, with links to Frontier and Delta, was designed with ease of use in mind.
Then there’s the equipment that customers may not often see, but which is crucial nonetheless for keeping things running smoothly. The little airport that once had a single plow to clear the runway now has a fleet of graders and trucks fitted with massive plows for snow removal. The diligence with which airport staff members maintain the facility has garnered a safety award from the FAA and two national snow removal awards.
The airport’s economic impact
There has been an airport in Rhinelander since 1948, and it was originally located near where the UPS facility is today. Jointly owned by the city and county, it was later moved to its current location southwest of town. The terminal was much smaller then, and runways did not accommodate jet service.
Both Heck and Brauer have been with the airport long-term. Heck has served as chairman of the airport commission since 1975 and Brauer has been manager since 1990. Both have different backgrounds – Heck has spent more than 50 years in the financial industry and is the founder, chairman and chief strategist at Heck Capital Advisors in Rhinelander, while Brauer was already a veteran of the aviation industry when he arrived in Rhinelander – but together, the two have been instrumental in turning the airport into a world-class facility and a critical component of the area’s economy.
The complexity and financial significance of the airport leads one to wonder what this area’s economic landscape would look like if the facility weren’t here.
“It would really be devastating without the airport,” says Heck. About 100 people work at the airport itself, but the facility’s impact goes well beyond the terminal walls.
When Joe Brauer moved here in 1989, he recalls, there were two companies in the air industrial park. Now there are 16, and they employ about 1,100 people. “When you ask any of these companies why they came here, it’s because we have an airport,” he says.
The airport’s economic impact on the area is about $30 million per year-not a bad return at all on an annual investment of $150,000 each by the city and the county. For the last 30 years, Bob Heck says, the airport’s economic benefit to the area has exceeded $300 million. The airport, rather than depending on money from the city and county for revenue, relies instead on ticket taxes and revenue from tenants at the airport-car rental agencies, delivery services, etc. Over the years, the airport has received $26 million in grants. Taxes have never been raised because of the airport, according to Heck. “The total assets of our airport are $31 million,” he says. “We have no long-term debt, and we’re very proud of that.”
That pride is justifiable. Without the airport, Rhinelander would be a completely different place. Perhaps Bob Heck’s quote on the airport’s website best sums up the facility’s importance: “Airports build cities, cities don’t build airports.”
Note: This article first appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of Northwoods Commerce magazine.