But as the economics of the airline industry continue to shift and Mitchell International Airport seeks to attract more passengers - and additional flights - Sorensen says he thinks it's time to talk about a new name for the airport.
"If we want to be a regional airport, we need to start thinking regionally," said Sorensen, who runs the Shorewood-based IdeaWorksCompany.
And, he says, serious thought should be given to somehow including northern Illinois in a new airport name.
Even bringing up that topic is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire and then tossing in a stick of dynamite for good measure. There are folks around here who are repulsed by the notion that Milwaukee could be linked to northern Illinois by anything other than the interstate highway system.
"I know Milwaukee is going to have a real big issue with this, but I think it's kind of the elephant in the room that needs to be talked about," Sorensen said.
That's because growth in the airline business is tough to find these days. Airports generally take what they can get.
Among similar-size cities, Mitchell International has plenty going for it, industry analysts say.
The airport already has some of the lowest fares in the nation when measured against the 100 largest airports in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The airport also is served by the largest carriers in the country. You can go almost anywhere from Milwaukee with one stop.
Mitchell's parking and convenience seem ahead of perennially congested O'Hare International in Chicago.
Some business travelers in Milwaukee, though, say it can be difficult to find a nonstop flight to various destinations around the United States.
The way to fix that is to add routes.
That won't happen without new passengers. Airlines these days are using the "butts in seats" business model in which they add flight service only if there is demand to support it.
It's been done before
That's where a regional approach for Mitchell might make sense, Sorensen said.
"Do we want to have more flights and more passengers at this airport? If the answer to that question is yes, then one of the things we need to do is tap into a larger market," he said.
That larger market is the northern suburbs of Chicago.
"I circle back to the question that needs to be answered. Do we want more flights here? Once you answer that question, it then begs a change to the brand that is being established by the airport," Sorensen said.
Changing airport names as part of a branding strategy is a trend seen from Tampa, Fla., to Bozeman, Mont., air industry consultants say.
- A federal lawsuit was filed in November over airport names in Tampa.
- Changing the airport's name has been an issue this year in Las Vegas.
- In Bozeman, Mont., last year, the airport changed its name to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport at Gallatin Field from simply being called Gallatin Field "to better compete with other airports that serve the (Yellowstone National) park . . . ," according to Jacob Kuipers, an economic policy consultant, who wrote about the topic on the travel industry blog The Cranky Flier. Bozeman is 90 miles from the park, the blog post says.
- Baltimore-Washington International is in neither Baltimore nor Washington. It's in unincorporated Anne Arundel County, Md.
- Cincinnati, Ohio's, airport isn't even in Ohio. It's in northern Kentucky and is known as Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International.
- Kuipers also cites Fresno Yosemite International in California. The airport changed its name in 1996 from Fresno Air Terminal, according to the airport's website. It's a 1.5-hour drive to the south entrance of Yosemite from the airport, according to the National Park Service.
"It's not uncommon at all," said Robert Mann of R.W. Mann, a New York airline industry consulting firm. "It's fairly widely employed."
These days, a key consideration is that the name of the airport - or brand - shows up in as many Internet searches as possible.
Mann says he understands the touchy nature of changing an airport's name.
"On the other hand, the practical issue from the airport's standpoint is you're trying to expand the image and hopefully the business," he said. "An easy way to do that is effectively using search engine optimization by incorporating a place name in your airport."
Sorensen says he isn't on a crusade. It's just business.
"When you are branding something, you have two choices: You can spend a godawful amount of money telling people what your brand is, and eventually the message will get through," he said. "The other method is name the thing (properly) to begin with something that perfectly conveys what it is."
A spokesman for Southwest Airlines, the dominant carrier at Mitchell International, said the airline doesn't have an opinion on airport names.
"We market Milwaukee as Milwaukee; we market Chicago as Chicago (Midway)," Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said in an email. "In both cases, we rely on the close-in convenience, cost advantage, and ease of airport experience in drawing people from the metro areas."
Nothing's ruled out
The powers that be around Milwaukee say they wouldn't rule out anything, including a name change for the airport, if it would increase air service in Milwaukee.
"It could make sense for the signage at the airport - 'Welcome to Milwaukee County' is too small of a welcome mat when the airport is a gateway to the 31st largest metropolitan area in the country," Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said in an email. "Toss in northern Illinois, and it grows even larger."
Sheehy points out that the airport runs on revenue from travelers, not from Milwaukee County taxpayers, "so no need to limit the geography to where the runway is."
Mitchell International is owned by Milwaukee County and is funded by the travelers and the airlines who use it.
The airport already is aggressively marketing to northern Illinois and northern Chicago, said Pat Rowe, airport marketing director, in an email.
"We know the most important factors in a passenger's buying decision are ticket price, flight schedule, parking cost and convenience, and that MKE is increasingly an option for northern Illinois travelers," she said.
Whether a change in the airport name would increase search engine optimization and would lead to more customer traffic "would have to be determined by a market study," she says.
And, changing the name, much less adding northern Illinois to it, would be no easy undertaking, she says.
"The change from 'Mitchell Field' to 'Milwaukee County's General Mitchell International Airport' generated a great deal of public debate, as incorporating 'Chicago' undoubtedly would," Rowe said.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said he would be open to anything that improves business at the airport.
"If someone in a research-based way could show definitively that airports changing their names have markedly and significantly (increased traffic) based solely on that change, I'd be kicking the door down" to change the name, he said.
"Now, I don't know if I could get my head around 'Milwaukee/Chicago' or 'Milwaukee/Sorry-Your-Bears-Lost-Again' International."
"If you put some sort of Illinois-ish thing in the name, people in Illinois might feel like they have more permission - or it was more of a normal, acceptable thing to do - to fly out of Milwaukee," he added. "I don't know. It seems like there has to be an easier way."
( Journal Sentinel) - Milwaukee Wisconsin