Muskegon Chicago Air Service Ends

September 3, 2002
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MUSKEGON — Administrators are hoping to fill the service void as quickly as possible following the pending loss of an airline that provides the only link between Muskegon County Airport and Chicago.

The financially beleaguered Great Lakes Airlines plans to discontinue its three daily round-trip flights between Muskegon and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Sept. 21. The departure will leave just two airlines serving Muskegon, Northwest and Midwest Express, which collectively operate 14 daily flights to and from major airline hubs at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport.

Though he hopes to have the Muskegon-Chicago route restored, Airport Manager Terry Grevious doubts another carrier will step up to fill the void until some time next year.

“We don’t expect it to happen this year. We are definitely going to have a period of time we are not going to have a Chicago service. But we hope to limit that time,” Grevious said. “We are going to work very diligently to restore Chicago service because it’s such an important market for us.”

Great Lakes Airlines’ share of the passenger volume at Muskegon County Airport fell from 40 percent “and growing” as recently as 18 months ago to 15 percent today following a downgrade in the airline’s affiliation with United Airlines, Grevious said. The affiliation downgrade, coupled with ongoing financial problems with the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based airline, generated some “performance issues” that “were not positive for our airport,” Grevious said.

“The loss is not a great one,” said Grevious, who anticipated the airline would terminate service in Muskegon, given its recent financial problems.

Parent company Great Lakes Aviation Ltd. posted a 2001 operating loss of $18.6 million on revenues of $101.4 million and was de-listed last month from the Nasdaq stock exchange. The company, which serves 45 airports in 15 states, in August reported a 45 percent decrease in passenger volumes for the year, compared to the same period in 2001.

“The future just wasn’t good for this airline at Muskegon. They’ve just diminished so much in their value to us,” he said. “We’re not too concerned they’re leaving.”

Far from representing a major drawback, Great Lakes’ termination of service in Muskegon later this month actually “may provide us some new opportunities to expand service,” Grevious said.

Muskegon County Airport is trying to lure United Airlines to resume service between Muskegon and Chicago with its United Express commuter airline. Great Lakes Airlines previously operated the route as a United Express carrier prior to downgrading its affiliation with United Airlines in May 2001.

The airport served 85,820 passengers in 2001, up 19 percent from the year earlier. Overall passenger volume is down about 10 percent this year, the result of service cuts that occurred in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Northwest Airlines, which is by far Muskegon’s largest carrier and accounts for about 70 percent of the passenger volume, has bucked the overall trend and experienced a 29 percent traffic increase this year.

Strong passenger volumes, combined with research data showing the potential for the airport to more than double the number of passengers served annually, have administrators optimistic they can attract a new carrier for the Chicago route.

“Airlines do make money here,” said Diane Hoofman, the airport’s air travel marketing consultant.

A study of ticket purchases made last summer showed the airport holds a 25.3 percent market share within its main four-county service area. The study concluded that the airport, with its close proximity to growing lakeshore communities, offers convenience for air travelers and could “reasonably expect” to capture a minimum 50 percent share of the existing market simply through greater awareness and service enhancements.

A team of representatives from Muskegon County Airport and local businesses and travel agents met in May with United Airlines and continue to make their case for re-establishing United Express service, as well as with other airlines, to expand service locally.

“We’re hopeful that it will happen in the future,” Grevious said.

That optimism, however, is tempered with the financial hardship now facing the airline industry, including United Airlines, which has warned that it faces bankruptcy.           

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