Ongoing challenges continue to stall a plan to return Midwest Express Airlines to the skies.
The effort to revive the once-beloved brand had picked up speed, with Midwest Express at one point even going as far as to announce the routes it planned to serve while unveiling a jet painted in the airline’s color scheme during a press event on the tarmac at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport in August 2019.
Since then, a series of turbulent events have put Midwest Express’ plans on hold.
The airline had planned to launch service in late 2019 but pushed back its start date to the first quarter of 2020. Next came a legal dispute with Portland, Maine-based Elite Airways, which was to provide flight operations for Midwest and support Midwest’s efforts to pursue regulatory and operational requirements in order to obtain its own airline operating certificate and aircraft, leading to another frustrating delay.
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Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, leading to a devastating drop in business for the country’s airlines and causing Midwest Express to indefinitely put its plans on hold.
Midwest Express spokeswoman Laurie Coleman acknowledged in an email on Wednesday that the pandemic has taken a severe toll on the airline industry.
“However, with the release of the vaccination program, passengers are feeling more confident to fly, which has opened the door to renewed investor interest,” Coleman wrote.
She went on to state that “Midwest Express is continuing to move forward” with its planned relaunch.
However, Coleman declined to provide answers to a series of questions from Milwaukee Magazine and said that Midwest Express President Greg Aretakis would be unavailable to be interviewed.
“We will be sure to reach out to you when there is additional information we can share,” Coleman wrote.
One year into the pandemic, Midwest Express appears to be focused on reigniting interest from investors to get back on track with plans to again serve Milwaukee air travelers.
Midwest announced in August 2019 that it would offer nonstop flights from its home base at Mitchell Airport to three initial destinations: Cincinnati; Omaha, Nebraska; and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Midwest has identified all three cities as common and underserved destinations for Milwaukee area business travelers.
The airline had planned to announce schedules, pricing and initial flights near the end of first quarter 2020, but the pandemic and a legal battle with Elite Airways stymied Midwest Express’ return.
Elite Airways entered into an agreement in July 2019 to launch flying operations for Midwest Express, while Midwest pursued its own airline operating certificate and aircraft, both time-consuming and costly endeavors.
In March 2020, Midwest Express announced it had ended its partnership with Elite Airways and had filed a lawsuit against the carrier in which it alleged a breach of contract. In the suit, Midwest Express argued that it was owed $150,000 by Elite for the alleged breach.
The court ruled in Midwest Express’ favor in May 2020 and ordered Elite to pay $150,000.
Aretakis previously stated that Midwest was engaged in discussions with other airline operators to bring back non-stop service to Milwaukee after the falling out with Elite.
As it weighs it options, competition at Mitchell is about to increase with the expected arrival of Florida-based discount carrier Spirit Airlines.
Midwest built its reputation on unique offerings for its customers, including cushy seats arranged two-by-two on each side of the aisle, gourmet meals served on fancy dishes, wine, champagne and, perhaps most memorably, baked-on-board chocolate chip cookies. The airline plans to bring back the cookies if it starts flying again.
Marketed as Milwaukee’s hometown airline, Midwest flew high, enjoying a market share of more than 50 percent at Mitchell in mid-2008. Economic turbulence and massive industry changes led to its demise shortly afterward.
The airline, which also operated as Midwest Airlines, fought off a takeover bid by AirTran Airways in 2007, but just three years later the treasured Midwest brand would all but disappear after being absorbed by Denver-based Frontier Airlines as part of a merger orchestrated by the airlines’ corporate parent, Republic Airways Holdings.
As part of the push to bring back the airline, a private offering was filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in May 2018 that allowed Midwest Express to secure investors and begin implementing its plans to relaunch the airline in Milwaukee.
Midwest began raising funds, with a stated initial goal of securing $6 million to $8 million from local investors.
In Midwest’s most recent filing with the SEC, made on May 27, 2020, the airline showed that it had received an additional $250,000 in investment, bringing the total raised to $1 million. Midwest hasn’t submitted any regulatory filings since that time.
Mitchell spokesman Harold Mester said airport officials have remained in touch with Midwest Express management.
“We continue to have ongoing conversations with Midwest Express, as we do with all airlines,” Mester said.
Mester confirmed that Midwest Express is still renting space at MKE Regional Business Park near the airport for its corporate headquarters.
At this point, Mitchell hasn’t allocated any gate space for Midwest Express, he said.
The planned arrival of Spirit Airlines at Mitchell won’t affect the airport’s ability to provide necessary accommodations for Midwest Express, should the airline move forward with plans to return to service at some future date, Mester said.
The planned relaunch of Midwest Express had generated significant buzz among the flying public, but airline observers have outlined the many challenges Midwest would face in trying to bring the airline back to life, including the need for significant financial investment and an intensely competitive industry with high labor costs and relatively low profit margins.
Those concerns were raised before the pandemic took hold, which has only added to the challenge of getting the airline off the ground.