A Comeback for Midwest Express?

While it’s not much more than a rumor and a website, chances look good for a return of Midwest Express.

The website www.flymidwestexpress.com, which was registered Feb. 15 but apparently didn’t have much content until this week, says two business partners are seeking investors as well as potential employees in an effort to bring back Midwest Express airline.

To launch a new airline, even one that is a known brand, would require a minimum of $100 million in investments, airline industry experts said.

News that there is an effort to get Milwaukee’s hometown airline flying again had the region buzzing Wednesday. Greg Aretakis, a former Midwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines executive is involved so that news fueled speculation.

A source within Milwaukee’s business community said members of the group have been shopping the concept and seeking investors in recent weeks.

Wisconsin-based Midwest Express and later, Midwest Airlines, stopped flying nearly 10 years ago.

At its peak in 2007, Midwest and its feeder airline Midwest Connect controlled just under 55% of the passenger traffic at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, according to statistics from the airport.

For much of its existence, essentially all of Midwest’s seats were premium by today’s standards. The flights were roomy, with two-across leather seats and warm chocolate chip cookies for passengers. The airline served some of the most popular business destinations in the country non-stop from Milwaukee. Connections expanded the carrier’s reach even farther.

The airline was almost universally loved in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. The company owned the naming rights to Milwaukee’s convention center. The firm billed itself as Milwaukee’s hometown airline. Its name was everywhere from Miller Park to Summerfest. The airline was a source of civic pride.

The company’s tagline was “The Best Care in the Air.”

Eventually, the economics of the airline industry caught up to Midwest. The collapse of Midwest’s business model can be traced, in part, to July 3, 2008, when the price of crude oil hit $145 a barrel. Suddenly, airlines could no longer afford to fly planes that were not jammed full of people, and Midwest’s luxurious, two-across seating was no longer sustainable.

As the jet fuel prices were soaring, the U.S. economy sank into the Great Recession, among the deepest economic downturns in the nation’s history. Business travel all but evaporated for a while.

The airline industry was ravaged as a result, and the aftermath left four airlines — American, United, Delta and Southwest — controlling more than 80% of the air travel market in the United States.

Midwest was taken over by Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings. The Midwest name was eliminated in 2011. The airline began operating as part of Frontier Airlines, which was part of Republic. Frontier was eventually sold to a private equity firm.

Getting a startup airline airborne is a fairly difficult task, said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc., a New York based airline industry consulting firm. For a startup airline to succeed, “You really either have to have a niche that nobody else is going near or you have to have a ton of money and be willing to lose quite a bit of it before you, if ever, latch onto a sustainable network,” Mann said.

For Midwest, the niche would seem to be there. “It would certainly be a different proposition than what you generally see today,” where new airlines tend to sell themselves on cheap fares rather than impeccable service.

And, what about the chocolate chip cookies on every flight, something for which Midwest is famous?

Curt Drumm, an aviation consultant who is a partner in the project responds, “Yes, we are going to have the cookies.”

To read more at USA Today, click here.

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