Q&A: Ismael ‘Izzy’ Bonilla, Milwaukee County’s Airport Director

During two decades in the Air Force, Ismael “Izzy” Bonilla was stationed all over the world. Now, he’s Milwaukee County’s airport director.

Do you remember your first airplane ride?
I believe I was 5 years old. We flew TWA from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New York City in a Boeing 707. As a child, we lived on the flight path to the airport. I would stop what I was doing and just look at the planes. To this day – I’m in my 50s – I still stop what I’m doing and look up at an airplane. [I’m] still looking up.

You spent 20 years in the Air Force. Are there any particular stories that stand out to you?
It was 1976, ’77 when I was just starting out. I went straight from Texas to Italy. The Red Brigade was very active. In fact, they [later] kidnapped a U.S. general. We were on high alert several times. We went out to some hot-spot areas, and that was the first time I was really aware what terrorism is about. [While there] I became fluent in Italian –I kind of taught myself – and I became an unofficial tour guide for VIPs like congressmen or generals.

After being in the Air Force, you were the Chief operating officer at an airport in San Juan that was one of the first privately run airports in the United States. are you interested in privatizing this airport in Milwaukee, too?
No. I’m not interested in it. The County Executive is not interested in it. I don’t think anybody’s interested in it. If there was a poster child for an airport that needed it, [San Juan] was it. Mitchell Airport is an efficient airport that’s doing well. It’s gone through a small dip and is rising again. I don’t even think this airport would qualify for (privatization). I want to make improvements to what we’re doing now.

What are some improvements you’d like to see?
We have a sustainability program we’re working on right now with the FAA. Anything that has to do with energy, we’re looking at making it better. That’s one of my goals. The other is how to look at our international operations. We want to grow that operation. We’re looking at the possibility of turning Concourse E into our international-slash-domestic terminal. The goal is to attract airlines to come in with flights to Europe, flights to South America or Mexico and continue our reach into the Caribbean. I think it’s vital we look at this.

I want to talk about my favorite part of the airport – the recombobulation area. It’s just such a great word. Is that something people know about who aren’t from Milwaukee?
Oh, yes (laughs). Believe it or not, yeah. When it came out, it (was in) a lot of the industry journals. It gave people kind of a smile. I’m leaving it the way it is. Actually, with the new security checkpoint that we’re going to be building, the recombobulation area will probably be expanded.

Your background is mostly in the Southeast and the Caribbean. So why Milwaukee?
It was the opportunity to be the executive director for an airport that is recognized worldwide. Because people know Milwaukee. There’s so much heritage here. Even my wife’s family from Italy knows where Milwaukee is.

‘Point of View: Ismael ‘Izzy’ Bonilla’ appears in the May 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the May issue on newsstands beginning May 2, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Dan Shafer was the digital editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Dan joined the magazine as assistant editor in 2014 and wrote the November 2014 cover story, "Downtown Horizons." He's worked as a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee and an editor at ThirdCoast Digest. Contact him at daniel.shafer@milwaukeemag.com. He's on Twitter @danshaferMKE.