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Airport privatization: An idea whose time has come?

Michael Fischer is senior counsel for the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

Michael Fischer is senior counsel for the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

During his successful re-election campaign, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele often said that he would consider and act on the best ideas from anyone — Democrat or Republican.

Yet, there is at least one idea that he is not willing to entertain. Although they didn’t agree on much, Abele and his opponent, Chris Larson, were both quick to say that it would be foolish for the county even to consider the sale or privatization of General Mitchell International Airport.

The airport’s future became an election issue of sorts because of Abele’s recent hiring of Ismael “Izzy” Bonilla as airport director and the resulting “rumors” that some form of privatization may be in the works. The speculation stemmed from Bonilla’s previous work at the 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. Larson was quick to state that privatization of the airport could not possibly be in the county’s interest and Abele was quick to agree.

Why? According to media reports of the candidates’ debate, Abele believes that the airport is “a valuable public asset that helps drive economic development.” So, he says, it should remain under “public control.”

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 among the things that local governments are best at?

London’s 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 also 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 100 largest airports in the world are either fully or partially owned by investors, many by airport groups that manage several airports across various jurisdictions.

The privatization of important regional and national airports has been a success, and European countries have led the way. Recent rankings suggest 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 use best practices in airport development and management should be better at their jobs than entities that are not really in the airport business.

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. One imagines it should instead be easy to bring more people to the airport, especially travelers looking to avoid congestion, delays and expenses at O’Hare airport in Chicago.

(File photo by Kevin Harnack)

(File photo by Kevin Harnack)

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 U.S. 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 take resources that are now tied up in its airport investment and use them for other purposes. That could mean additional money — perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars — that could be used for essential governmental responsibilities such as parks and law enforcement. Given Milwaukee County’s long-standing budget constraints, it’s at least worth thinking about.

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 Abele — who is supposed to be open to new ideas — to simply rule it out, especially when his 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.

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