Written by Brian J. Grefe
Presidential events using airports are nothing new, but Presidential events being held at airports are an emerging trend . . .
In years past, when the President of the United States would hold an event in a community, his pilots would land Air Force One at an airport and the motorcade would take him to a park, an arena, or an event center, where he would deliver his message. Once the event was over, the President would return to the airport and depart. Impacts to the local airport under that classic operating scenario were significant, but predictable, as the Secret Service and Air Force One teams ran a very tight operation based on established timelines, protocol, and years of lessons learned. This is no longer the norm for how a president reaches his audiences, though.
Why the change?
Well, it’s this author’s minimally researched and likely indefensible opinion that after an October 24, 2018, midterm campaign rally held at our acclaimed Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA) in Mosinee, President Trump learned that airports provide a safe, secure, and accessible venue that is the absolute fastest option for the President to deliver his message to a community and then move on.
Today, if you look at President Trump’s schedule, you’ll notice that a significant amount of his non-Washington, DC, events are held at airports all around the country. I’m just sayin’… CWA seems to have started an airport rally trend.
In fact, on September 17, 2020, President Trump returned to CWA to hold another campaign rally.
With less than a week to prepare, and being told the date would be moved up one day earlier than originally planned, staff at CWA knew they had to be even better prepared this time around than they were for the President’s previous visit to our airport. But there was a problem: Even though the event was at CWA again, nearly everything was different from the 2018 event…
It’s an election year, so crowd numbers were expected to be higher for this visit, yet the event was planned to be held in a different (smaller!) hangar than his 2018 visit. In addition, the several thousand non-travelling event attendees were going to be closer to our passenger terminal building this time around. And — oh, by the way — we were hosting this momentous event in the midst of handling a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
Because of these new variables, we elected to plan for the worst-case scenario so we’d be prepared for anything. Event organizers had predicted early that attendee numbers could reach as high as 15,000 people. We knew that there was no way our airport staff alone could handle that number without enlisting help from various community partners and supporters.
And while numerous entities worked together to coordinate this historic event, a few key groups went above and beyond to ensure that the President’s 2020 visit was a success:
- Parking for this volume of vehicles was supported by the Hmong American Center’s Soul Lock Group and Wausau & Marathon County Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department.
- Traffic control and public safety were coordinated by the Mosinee Police Department and Marathon County Sheriff’s Office.
- Human safety and emergency preparedness were provided for onsite by the Mosinee Fire District and Marathon County Emergency Management.
- Public health concerns were addressed by consulting with the Marathon County Health Department to make sure the airport followed the most up-to-date best practices for hosting an outdoor event of this scale under the unique circumstances.
Thanks to pro-active communication among all of these groups, we were well prepared on this end to make our local airport in Mosinee available and safe to host an event of this magnitude.
I should note that the President’s arrival and the rally itself were entirely planned and executed by outside parties. As previously noted, the Secret Service and the Air Force One team, who directed the President’s movements, were extremely well coordinated. They had briefings, timelines, contact lists, and people in place who could make literally anything happen.
But, if I may juxtapose those no-nonsense professionals with the contracted and staff event coordinators, I’d have to say that the event coordinators were more like starry-eyed children wanting their parents to adorn the outside of the house with loads of lights and decorations during the holidays… They wanted everything at CWA bigger, brighter, and louder — with little regard for the laws of physics.
From a public health standpoint, facemasks were available for every attendee, temperatures were taken, hand sanitizer was provided, and open areas were accessible for people choosing to socially distance themselves.
Airport staff, still very concerned about the potential to reach 15,000 attendees, launched an aggressive public relations campaign informing people that simply having a ticket for the event did not guarantee entry to the event. Plans were in place to turn people away if attendee numbers reached an unacceptable or unsafe level.
We also published that parking would not be available until noon the day of the event for those wishing to see the President speak at 8:00 that evening. Even so, attendees started showing up at 3:00 p.m. the day before he was expected to arrive. By 8:00 a.m. the day of his arrival, there were about 20 attendees. As the morning went on, vehicles kept trickling in. At noon, when parking opened, the flow increased, and thanks to our coordinated teams of workers, there never was a bottleneck. There was a steady flow of vehicles until around 8:00 p.m., when President Trump spoke.
Within 24 hours after the President departed from CWA, you would hardly know that he — and an estimated 5,000 people — were ever there…
All in all, the event preparations, hosting, and clean-up went extremely well. There were no major medical issues, very minimal trash, and the only real traffic congestion was after the event when everyone was leaving at the same time.
As always, there were some key takeaways and lessons learned from putting on an event of this scale, but rest assured, the Central Wisconsin Airport will be always be ready to host the President — whomever it may be.
Brian J. Grefe
Airport Director | Central Wisconsin Airport
Brian has been serving as Airport Director at Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA) since February 2016. Prior to CWA, he worked at airports in Aspen, CO, and in Duluth, MN. With his wife and two sons, he is now living in Rib Mountain. Email Brian Grefe.
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