Milwaukee – General Mitchell International Airport

Free ping-pong at the Milwaukee Airport

No time to go to China this summer? Then consider going to Milwaukee.

The city’s “Summer of China” celebration includes an exhibit of Chinese art and architecture at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The U.S. Table Tennis Open was played in town earlier this month.

To keep the love going, there are ping-pong tables set up around town for anyone to use.

You’ll find them at the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the InterContinental Milwaukee Hotel, Mitchell Park Conservatory, Chase Bank Plaza, Horny Goat Hideaway and Lakefront Brewery and in the main concession mall at the General Mitchell International Airport.

America’s got talent -at the airport

Milwaukee Airport_ Daniel Meek

Daneil Meek: TSA officer AND bagpiper

An artist, a baker and a bagpiper walk into an airport.

Is that the first line of a bad joke?

It could be. But it’s also a sampling of the hidden talents pursued by people who work at some of the nation’s airports. In some cases, only their colleagues reap the benefits, but from impromptu concerts to employee art shows, fliers across the country may encounter some fun and diversion in the midst of a stressful travel day.

Here’s the story I wrote about these talented airport workers for my At the Airport column in USATODAY.com.

When he’s not training for swim meets, Daniel Meek (above), the TSA administrative officer at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport, plays the bagpipes (yes, in a traditional Scottish kilt) at events ranging from funerals to local, regional and national law enforcement ceremonies. “A group of TSOs [Transportation Security Officers] are going to ride motorcycles to the 9/11 ten-year anniversary ceremonies in Washington DC, and I’m going to join them with my bagpipes,” said Meek.

Special events at Los Angeles International Airport now often include a few tunes by a chorus of surprisingly sweet-voiced TSA employees. “Our goal is to put the human face of the TSA in the public. Not just the ‘Take off your shoes’ image,” LAX Terminal Screening Manager Raul Matute told me back in December as the group readied for holiday performances in several terminals.

LAX TSA CHOIR

LAX TSA CHOIR

At Denver International Airport, the contract manager can sing opera, the CFO plays trumpet, a member of the custodial staff leads an in-demand mariachi band and one of the customer service volunteers is a magician. “Maybe we should start a band or hold a variety show in the terminals each Friday,” said airport spokesperson Jenny Schiavone.

No joking around. Well, sometimes.

Don Steinmetz is a veteran Phoenix police sergeant assigned to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where he supervises explosive-detection dogs and their police partners. “At the airport, our job is to deter, detect and keep people safe,” says Steinmetz. Outside the airport, Steinmetz performs on the stand-up comedy circuit, where his job is to make people laugh. “At the airport there are thousands of people and so many diverse situations. So there are plenty of hilarious things I can talk about from a police officer’s point of view.”

Kelly McCarron, a JetBlue employee at San Francisco International Airport, also moonlights as a stand-up comic. She interacts with the public at ticket-counters and gates all day but, unlike Steinmetz, doesn’t put many work stories into her act. “People in the audience have usually been on the other side of the airport interaction and I’m usually in the role of the bad guy. So it’s hard to get them on my side.”

On the serious side, Debbie Ramirez, spends her days marketing and promoting Phoenix Sky Harbor. But in her spare time, she and her horses are on-call for the posse that helps with search and rescue efforts for the Maricopa County sheriff’s office. “People go out hiking in the mountains and get lost or in trouble,” says Ramirez. “We’ve rescued a lot of people, but sometimes we can only help families find closure.”

Aerobatics and other art

When he’s not on the job, Mark Leutwiler, the Security Operations Manager at Portland International Airport (PDX) can be found up in the air practicing aerobatic art. “When I was young I went flying with someone and we went upside down. That’s when I realized that’s what I want to do. Now I fly loops and rolls and spins as much as possible.”

One of Leutwiler’s co-workers, Pauline Nelson, oversees security access for much of the terminal building and de-stresses by cooking, baking and building decorated cakes. She’s taken first prize at the Oregon State Fair numerous times, but it may be her co-workers who reap the rewards. “Basically, there aren’t enough people in my household to eat all the things I cook,” said Nelson, “So I bring things to work all the time.”

Reno-Tahoe International Airport hosts an annual Employee Art Show and this year the exhibit featured about 100 paintings, works on paper, photos, sculptures, crafts and mixed media entries by 59 airport employees and their family members. Similar art shows, supported by the National Arts Program are held regularly at airports in Orlando, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Dallas-Fort Worth.

And while Boston Logan International Airport has an official photographer, airport spokesman Richard Walsh calls landside operations manager Rudy Chiarello “the airport’s official, unofficial photographer.” Chiarello has been a Massport employee for 35 years and has amassed thousands of photos, many of them of airplanes taken from out on the airfield. “I was one of those people who thought my pictures sucked,” said Chiarello, “But after 9/11, I wanted to promote aviation so I started uploading my pictures to airliners.net and got great responses. I never knew people would be so crazy about airline pictures.”

Then there’s Art Cozart, who has worked as a baggage handler for US Airways at Charlotte Douglas International Airport for the past 29 years. “About ten years ago I had coffee in the break room and drew a picture on the Styrofoam cup with a pen,” said Cozart, whose art training consists of a ‘filler’ class he took during his senior year of high school. Cozart kept doodling and now estimates he’s covered about 1000 Styrofoam cups with his artwork.

In October 2010, a selection of Cozart’s cups were displayed during the grand opening of Charlotte’s Mint Museum UPTOWN and now there’s a website featuring his creations. Mostly, though, Cozart says he just draws cups for friends and family and gives them away. “I’ve done animals, boats, airports, landscapes and people, including Marilyn Monroe, The Munsters, Dale Earnhardt, and Laurel and Hardy.” As for his choice of medium? Cozart explains, “I can draw on paper if I have to, but this helps keep cups out of the landfill.”

Museum Monday: Gallery of Flight at Milwaukee General Mitchell Int’l Airport

If you like flying, chances are you like airplanes. And if you like airplanes, chances are you like visiting aviation museums once in a while.

Lucky for you there are more than 600 aviation and space-related museums around the country.   Each Monday, StuckatTheAirport.com visits one of them.

This week, it’s the Mitchell Gallery of Flight inside Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport.

Hamiltion Metalplan at aviation museum inside Milwaukee Mitchell Int'l Airport

(Hamilton Metalplane display, courtesy Mitchell Gallery of Flight)

Like the airport, the museum is named in honor of General Billy Mitchell, who is regarded as the Father of the U.S. Air Force.

Mitchell is profiled in the People section of the museum, along with Wisconsin-born fighter ace Dick Bong and other aviators with Wisconsin links, including Charles Lindbergh, who visited the Milwaukee airport in 1927.  Two exhibit cases display artifacts and photos about Captain James Lovell, who is best known for his four Gemini and Apollo spaceflights.

James Lovell exhibit at MKE Gallery of Flight museum

In the Aircraft & Airships section of the museum, you’ll see antique propellers, aviation-related artifacts and loads of models, including a 22-foot, 1/36th scale model of the Graf Zeppelin II (a sister to the Hindenberg) and models of military jets, WWII aircraft and airplanes of all eras.

Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport Gallery of Flight exhibit

(Photo by Prateek Bahadur, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Best of all, the museum is located pre-security at Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport and admission is free.

For information about hours and exhibits, see the Mitchell Gallery of Flight website.

aircraft models displayed at Gallery of Flight Museum in General Mitchell International Airport Milwaukee

(Photo by Prateek Bahadur, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Do you have a favorite aviation/space museum? Please feel free to nominate it for a future edition of Museum Monday.


Airport smackdown: it’s “gloves off” when dissing rivals

My “At the Airport” column for USAToday.com this week – Gloves are off as airports go after their rivals in ads – is about airports rolling out funny, “in your face” campaigns.

In a video about San Francisco International Airport, Mayor Gavin Newsom has a cameo. So do Marion and Vivian Brown, the kooky 83 year-old identical twins who have become beloved San Francisco icons.  Designed to promote SFO as the connecting hub of choice for travelers coming to the United States from New Zealand or Australia, the video compares SFO’s airy, light-filled, international terminal to an unnamed airport simply referred to as “the bad airport.”

In this video, the bad airport does look pretty bad. But, marketing experts tell me, that’s what airports have to do these days to stand out.

Another example is the new campaign from Canada’s Edmonton International Airport (YEG), which serves about six million passengers a year. On March 1st the airport rolled out a “Stop the Calgary Habit” campaign, urging residents of central and northern Alberta to stop connecting through or driving to Calgary International Airport (YYC), which serves about ten million passengers a year.  Using the tag line “When you go south, so does your air service,” (Ouch!), the campaign includes short (:15) videos portraying repentant passengers.

There’s also a tool kit that includes a shake-able Magic 8-ball-like sphere offering habit-breaking tips and – my favorite – an “Emergency Hypno Cure.”

Barf bags and skywriting

For years Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport’s (MKE) was marketing itself to northern Illinois as “Chicago’s Third Airport” and back in 2005 mailed out a “Sick of O’Hare?” media kit that included (now highly collectible) air sick bags that said “Feel Better, Fly MKE” and a package of breath mints. A few years later, when the Chicago Cubs were playing the Chicago White Sox at Wrigley Field, MKE hired a skywriter to write the address of the MKE website in the airspace over the game.

Airport spokesperson Patricia Rowe says they don’t do that ‘in your face’ stuff anymore. “Now we spend more time focusing on what’s great about our airport instead of attacking O’Hare.”

Nicer, maybe. But nowhere near as much fun.

To read my USAToday.com story about airport smackdowns, please see Gloves are off as airports go after their rivals in ads.

More fun freebies at airports

Free is good. And these days many small and mid-size airports are trying to build loyalty by offering travelers free amenities.

In my At the Airport column this month on USAToday.com, I write (again) about the free cookies they hand out at Indiana’s Fort Wayne International Airport as well as some of the fun freebies offered at other airports.

Florida’s  Jacksonville International Airport distributes free flowers to passengers each year on Valentine’s Day and on Mother’s Day.

The Reno-Tahoe International Airport offers free local phone calls year-round.

In Milwaukee, home of Harley-Davidson Motor Company and the Harley-Davidson Museum, the General Mitchell International Airport offers free parking for any traveler who arrives on a motorcycle.

At Ohio’s Port Columbus International Airport, children are given free crayons and blank post-paid postcards and asked to please mail back a picture from their travels for display in an airport gallery. The airport has also purchased its own popcorn machine and hands out free bags of popcorn during quarterly customer appreciation days. “It’s a great way for us to say thanks,” says CMH communications manager Angie Tabor, “Plus, who doesn’t love the smell of popcorn?”

And in Wisconsin, the Outagamie County Regional Airport gives out free toothbrushes.

Airport marketing manager Kim Sippola says: “We noticed that many business travelers would get off the plane, go into the bathroom, and search through their bags for a toothbrush because they were going right from the airport to a meeting. So we thought we’d reduce some stress for our customers by providing them with toothbrushes.”

The airport partnered with a local dentist and now stocks post-security bathrooms with travel-sized oral hygiene kits that contain mouthwash, dental floss and a toothbrush with a single-serving of toothpaste.

Have you found a great airport freebie? Please let us know so we can tell other travelers about it.