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By James B. Nelson January 30, 2011

Acting Milwaukee County Executive Lee Holloway says Mitchell International Airport is the busiest in the country

One of Lee Holloway’s first acts after becoming acting Milwaukee County executive was to put his name on the monthly press release about passenger counts at Mitchell International Airport.

Holloway, the County Board chairman, is running to fill the job in the spring election and -- like his predecessor, now-Gov. Scott Walker -- touts success at the airport at campaign appearances.

At a Jan. 21, 2011 forum at the Marquette University Law School, he called Mitchell the "third busiest airport in the world and the number one busiest airport in the country."

That stopped a few scribbling pens. And some in the audience scratched their heads.

Busier than O’Hare,  Atlanta or LaGuardia? Third busiest in the world?

In the debate appearance -- viewed by a standing room only audience, aired on television and available on YouTube -- Holloway got it wrong. Mitchell is the nation’s fastest growing airport and -- at least for a while last year -- was the third fastest growing airport in the world.

It’s not the busiest.

Holloway has gotten his airport facts right on several other occasions, including a Journal Sentinel editorial board visit, two press releases, and his Jan. 26, 2011 "State of the County" speech. Well, close to right -- the world ranking is based on outdated statistics.

The most recent airport stats:

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  • A little more than 9.8 million passengers traveled through Mitchell in 2010, according to airport data. That’s a 24.1 percent increase over the year before.
  • In December, there were 774,341 passengers, up 6.4 percent from the same month in 2009.
  • More than 2 million passengers changed planes at Mitchell last year, a 25 percent increase over the year before.

However, Mitchell’s status as among the fastest growing in the world is waning.

The airport was fourth fastest growing in the world in the first quarter of 2010 and third in the second quarter, but tumbled to 16th in the third quarter, according to Airports Council International, an industry trade group. (Fourth quarter numbers aren’t yet available.)

Milwaukee was the only U.S. airport on the list, and in the second quarter trailed only Istanbul, Turkey and Moscow. In the third quarter, airports in several South American countries surged ahead of Milwaukee -- seven of them landed in the top 15.

"We anticipate that MKE will continue to grow, but that the rate of growth will flatten as we begin comparing to growth rates of 30 - 40 percent" in the fourth quarter of 2009 and first quarter of 2010, said airport spokeswoman Patricia Rowe.

PolitiFact Wisconsin checked a similar airport statement made in September by Walker, then a candidate for governor. In his victory speech on primary election night, Walker said the airport was the fastest growing airport in the country and responsible for 1,000 jobs.

Airport consultant Michael Boyd, of Boyd Group International in Evergreen Colo., told us then that passengers were enjoying more flights and comparatively lower fares because three airlines -- AirTran Airways, Southwest and Republic -- are "trying to kill each other."
"It has nothing to do with county government," Boyd said. "It has to do with airline economics."

Some of the large increases are the result of the year-to-year comparisons. Midwest Airlines, for instance, dramatically slashed the number of its destinations from Mitchell before it was bought by Republic. The airline now operates as Frontier and has steadily added flights.

Walker’s statement, which mixed in job growth, earned a Half True.

Where does Holloway’s nation’s-busiest statement land?

Holloway has made a more precise airport claim on other occasions. But he was wrong when he said at the candidates’ forum that Mitchell was one of the world’s "busiest" airports, and the busiest in the nation. Those rankings relate to passenger growth, not busy-ness. What’s more, the world ranking he used (third) came from the second quarter data from 2010 -- and that’s old data. We’re now No. 17 according to the latest figures.  

Holloway’s incorrect  message went out to a wider audience and was echoed by media outlets covering the event.

Holloway’s claim is False.   

Our Sources

Candidates forum, Marquette University Law School, Jan. 21, 2011

Voicemail, Harold Mester, spokesman, Acting County Executive Lee Holloway

Lee Holloway airport press releases, December 30, 2010,  January 26, 2011

PolitiFact Wisconsin on Scott Walker airport claim

Airports Council International Quarterly Traffic Bulletin, first quarter, 2010

Airports Council International Quarterly Traffic Bulletin, third quarter, 2010

E-mails, Patricia Rowe, spokeswoman, Mitchell International Airport, Jan. 26, 2011

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Acting Milwaukee County Executive Lee Holloway says Mitchell International Airport is the busiest in the country

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