Design and Construction, Energy Management and Lighting, Grounds Management, Maintenance and Operations, Sustainability/Business Continuity

Exterior LED Lighting Upgrade Takes Off at Milwaukee Airport

Energy use is a significant percentage of an airport’s operating costs—as much as 10-15% of these facilities’ entire operating budget. Upgrading to LED luminaires greatly reduces airports’ energy consumption because, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, they use up to 75% less energy than traditional luminaires.

LED luminaires also reduce maintenance costs because they last up to 10 years. Another advantage is the brighter, more uniform illumination that provides better visibility and improves safety for ground crews and other airport employees, pilots, and passengers. These benefits have been the impetus for a significant exterior lighting upgrade at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE).

About the Airport

Founded on the current site in 1926 as Milwaukee County Airport and renamed in 1941 to Billy Mitchell Field after Milwaukee’s military advocate, Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, the facility has experienced much growth and many renovations over the years. In 2019, the airport was renamed Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport to incorporate the airport’s location and anchor city in the airport name. In 2022, the airport had 5.4 million flights and several new airlines added service into and from Milwaukee.

Lighting Upgrade

For years, MKE has been working to lower costs and reduce its environmental footprint. One way the airport is achieving this is by lessening energy usage and improving overall operational efficiency. Starting with a few exterior LED luminaires previously installed on the electric shop, Dale Hardy, electrical supervisor at MKE, wanted to learn more about these lights and reached out to Joel Larson from Milwaukee-based Spectrum Lighting.

The two met and discussed that these luminaires are from Milwaukee-based Optec LED Lighting. Larson presented details about Optec’s full product line and the myriad benefits the luminaires would provide the airport. Optec’s exterior Area Series was of particular interest to Hardy since the high-intensity discharge (HID) lights located throughout the tarmac and the metal halide (MH) roadway lights no longer had replacement parts available.

After reviewing the performance of the test fixtures, Hardy decided to move ahead with Optec’s luminaires and is upgrading all of the HID, MH, and high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights throughout the grounds that are under his jurisdiction. MKE covers 2,180 acres, and while all of this isn’t getting a lighting upgrade, Hardy and his team of licensed electricians have been busy installing the new luminaires.

This project began in mid-summer 2022 and includes 575 luminaires installed throughout the tarmac for Concourse D and C; employee, cab and Remote Lot A parking lots; the MKE Regional Business Park; roadway poles; terminal loading docks; maintenance, fleet, and electrical buildings and poles; the parking structure entrance; and the canopy pay station after exiting the parking structure.

“This brighter lighting combined with lower energy usage and maintenance costs make these lighting enhancements a win-win for MKE airport,” said MKE Director Brian Dranzik. “I have received positive feedback from our customers and our tenants who appreciate the higher- quality light provided by these upgraded fixtures.”


Hardy anticipates MKE will see a return on investment in just a few years and realize lighting energy savings of more than 50%. These savings are impressive, but equally important is the response already received from MKE’s operating partners.

Hardy said, “I’ve received great feedback from ground crews at American, Delta, and Southwest who are benefitting from the reduced glare and more uniform, whiter illumination because it increases visibility and safety.”

The luminaires deliver crisp, white light to the tarmac and offer improved color recognition for security cameras and better night-time visibility for ground personnel. The white light is a dramatic improvement from the previous amber color of the HPS pole lights.

Other airport employees, passengers, and airport guests will also benefit from the upgraded roadway, parking lot, and canopy pay station lights because whiter, more uniform illumination and better visibility reduces accidents and increases safety. Additionally, the new wall packs on buildings throughout the facility deliver advanced light distribution, which provides more visibility for operating partners and airport personnel.

The new exterior lights are expected to last 10 years, allowing Hardy and his team to have more time for other airport electrical projects.

Future plans include upgrading the area lights in Remote Lot B, which still has HPS lights, as well as the Amtrak station building that is under construction.

Bob Tortorello is vice president at Optec LED Lighting, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of LED outdoor fixtures.

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