Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Senator Chris Larson, his opponent in the upcoming election, don’t appear to agree on much. But based on their recent debate, they do completely agree on one thing – that the County should never consider the sale or privatization of the Milwaukee County Airport.
The airport’s future has become as issue of sorts because Abele’s recent hiring of Ismael “Izzy” Bonilla as airport director has given rise to “rumors” that some form of privatization may be in the works. That is because Bonilla once worked at Puerto Rico’s Marin International Airport, the first large U. S. airport to be privatized under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program. Those rumors apparently led County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb to question whether Abele’s vision for the struggling airport might include some form of privatization. The candidates were both quick and emphatic in their statements that privatization of the airport could not be in the County’s interest and would not happen on their watch.
Why? According to the Journal Sentinel, they agree that the airport is “a valuable public asset that helps drive economic development.” So, they say, it should remain under “public control.” Chris Abele, Chris Larson Debate Visions for Milwaukee County Exec., Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 9, 2016.
There is no question that the airport is a valuable public asset and one that is of crucial importance to the economic development of Southeastern Wisconsin. But it does not obviously or inevitably follow from that proposition that the operation and development of the airport should be managed by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, or even the County Executive. Why would anyone assume that the operation of a major regional airport is within the core competency of local government?
London Heathrow airport is a valuable public asset and one that is of critical importance to the city of London and probably to the entire United Kingdom. It is owned and operated by a private company. The same is true of airports in Zurich, Sydney, Rome, Vienna, Brussels and Buenos Aires. Thirty-six of the one hundred largest airports in the world are either fully or partially owned by investors, many by airport groups that manage several airports across multiple jurisdictions. Privatization of important regional and national airports has been a success, with European countries leading the way. Recent rankings indicate that privately operated airports are among the best in the world.
That should come as no surprise. Firms that have single-mindedly made the investments required to discover and implement best practices in airport development and management should be better at their jobs than entities that are not really in the airport business at all. There is no reason to suppose that Milwaukee County government – which after all has to worry about parks, bus fares, law enforcement and mental health services – should be good at airport management. And the evidence suggests that it is not. The airport is losing airline service and failing to attract new passengers, something that one might suppose would be easy to do as the alternative involves congestion, delays and expense at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.
Airport privatization can take a variety of forms, ranging from the outsourcing of some or all airport operations to private firms to partial or even complete private ownership. Although the United States has lagged behind the rest of the world, airport privatization has been successful in many places. It could be successful in Milwaukee. Privatization would permit the county to free up resources that are tied up in its airport investment for other purposes. That could mean additional funds – perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars – that could be used for core governmental responsibilities such as parks and law enforcement.
Milwaukee is not unique. Some form of privatization may well be the best solution for our airport, and the best way to secure the benefits of economic development for Southeastern Wisconsin. And it may not be. But it is foolish for our elected leaders simply to rule it out, especially when their reasoning appears to be nothing more than we’ve never done it that way before. Things can change, after all. Sometimes for the better. Even in Milwaukee.