08 SEP 2011: If I were to take stock of all the things about which I have made “less than positive” observations in recent years, I would be prepared to bet your house that the commercial airport experience and the TSA would loom large.

Once in a very long while however even an embattled old aero-cynic such as I can have a Eureka moment that rekindles the flame of hope for the future of commercial airports. Last week I had one such experience in, of all places, Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (MKE).

I have flown in and out of Milwaukee numerous times over the years and always found it a very user friendly place. In the last month however I have had occasion to visit Wisconsin twice and on the second trip last week I actually found myself looking forward to the experience! That’s right, I said it. I was happily anticipating spending time in a commercial airport terminal building.

Now Hong Kong or Dubai it is not. In fact, physically MKE is positively lack-luster. It has no mono-rails, soaring colonnaded concourses, high-speed walkways, waterfalls or fountains. It makes no claims to be the biggest, the busiest or the newest. But it is probably all the things that it’s not that make MKE the surprisingly pleasant experience that it is.

Let me walk you through the ninety minutes I spent there last week. I arrived at 5:30 pm for a seven o’clock flight. I had printed my boarding pass that morning at the hotel’s business center and had no bags to check so had no use for the check-in counters which I noted were busy but un-crowded.

The first “Woah Betsy” moment was the sight of a young couple enjoying a very bad game of ping-pong right there in the middle of the main terminal. What really struck me as odd however was the fact that the table wasn’t branded as “Ping Pong by Pepsi” or some such. And when they finished, the paddles and ball were just left on the table for the next players: no security deposits or concerns about “theft of airport property”. Instead it was simply a fun use for an otherwise empty space.

Next, I idly wandered into a bookstore and was at first surprised and then delighted to find it was totally devoid of any current best-sellers. As the name suggests “Renaissance Books” sells only secondhand books and it turned out to be a treasure trove of all nature of books and magazines in a thousand-and-one carefully catalogued sections.

Under “Aviation” I was thrilled to discover a long out of print copy of my all-time favorite airline book, “Skygods” by Robert Gandt. It is the true story of the rise and fall of Pan American World Airways, something that will certainly bear little resemblance to ABC’s upcoming new TV series “Pan Am” which promises to be a Sunday night soap opera.

But I digress...

Next I took a stroll through the “Gallery of Flight Museum”, a nicely presented not-for-profit educational space that most airports would have rented (for profit) to some donut joint or seller of socks. As a student of WW II era military aircraft, I spent a happy 20 minutes ogling the historic model airplanes they had on display. I could easily have spent an hour here but suddenly realized I still had to get through security and so headed for the gate.

En route I passed unlikely neighbours: a Brooks Brothers right next to what looked like a really interesting Harley Davidson store. The latter seemed a little incongruous until I remembered that beer isn’t the only thing that made Milwaukee famous: HD is headquartered there too. Next time it will be on my pre-departure to-do list.

Now remember, all this is happening on a Wednesday around 6:15 in the evening. Granted Milwaukee isn’t exactly YYZ, but it does handle almost ten million passengers a year which puts it ahead of the likes of Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I walked right up to the TSA security point with absolutely nobody ahead of me. I even double checked to see I was in the right place which greatly amused the excruciatingly polite (I’ve really lived in New York way too long) TSA agents. Still smiling they were downright apologetic about having to put me through the full-body scanner - “We only put everyone through here when it’s not too busy, and right now you’re everyone.” I pinched myself but it wasn’t a dream.

When they asked if they could open my bag to inspect “what looks like a non-conforming item”, the kindly gentleman (never thought I’d say that about a TSA officer!) even suggested an alternative brand for the offending can of regulation-sized shaving foam. “For some reason these Gillette cans just look bigger than three ounces. I’d suggest you try Edge, it’s never a problem.”

The lack of anticipated security delays meant I found myself at the close-by departure gate forty minutes before scheduled departure time. Just as the idea of grabbing a quick beer flitted across my mind I was a little disappointed to hear my flight being called.

AirTran, an airline with which I have had nothing but good experiences, seems to specialize in leaving early, which in the scheme of things is not a bad problem to have.

Boarding was quick and efficient. We pushed back ten minutes ahead of schedule and were off the ground on the stroke of seven. What I had just experienced was literally something to write home about: a really pleasant time in a commercial airport!

Okay that relaxed mid-west spirit of caring probably has something to do with it, but it was more about the attitude encapsulated by table tennis, secondhand books and the museum. Clearly MKE is an airport that’s not just another profiteering people processing plant.

Sure all the usual concessions are there like Starbucks and the rest, but like its namesake General Mitchell, who was the founding father of what’s now the air force, the place has some genuine character to it.

Next trip I plan to get there earlier. If I’m never going to have a Harley, at least I can have the tee-shirt!

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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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