Muskegon Airport Up Up And Away

February 7, 2003
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MUSKEGON — Seeing a valuable yet underutilized economic development tool, and hoping to lure airlines to offer jet service locally, the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce has set out to convince business travelers to "fly Muskegon" more often.

The chamber's goal is to increase Muskegon County Airport's market share within the lakeshore region from 25 percent to 35 percent within two years and spur its largest carrier, Northwest Airlines, to commence jet service. Within five years, the chamber hopes to further grow the airport's market share to 55 percent, bring a third airline to Muskegon that will provide jet service, and add flights to and from a new regional hub, preferably Minneapolis.

Those kinds of improvements in the local air transportation system will make the Muskegon area more economically viable for business and aid in efforts to recruit and retain employers, Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen said.

"It will simply make the lakeshore a more attractive location for businesses and as a residence," Larsen said.

Muskegon County Airport handles 16 flights daily between Muskegon and regional air hubs in Detroit and Milwaukee. The airport's passenger traffic declined 8 percent in 2002, from 81,103 to 74,297 passengers, largely because of the loss of one airline.

The financially beleaguered Great Lakes Airlines discontinued its three round-trip daily flights between Muskegon and Chicago's O'Hare Airport on Sept. 21. The departure left just two airlines serving Muskegon — Northwest and Midwest Express, which provide service to and from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport and Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport.

Northwest Airlines recorded a 33 percent year-to-year increase in passenger volume in Muskegon during 2002, from 37,957 to 50,526. Midwest Express' passenger volume in Muskegon declined 17 percent in 2002, from 13,260 to 11,008.

To boost passenger volume, the Chamber of Commerce has formed a new transportation task force that will work to increase awareness about Muskegon County Airport, which for years has promoted itself as offering greater convenience for air travelers in lakeshore communities. The panel is seeking the support of 20 to 30 business leaders in the area for a core group to help "create momentum" and actively encourage companies to consider Muskegon County Airport first when planning business trips, Larsen said.

The chamber will ask participating businesses that pledge their support to increase their use of Muskegon County Airport for business trips by 20 percent and to alter their corporate travel policies to give the local facility priority when planning business travel.

The idea is to help Muskegon County Airport increase traffic volume to the point where airlines will implement commuter jet service, which business travelers prefer to fly. About 60 percent of Muskegon County Airport's passenger volume comes from business travelers.

"Airlines will do a lot of things if you've got a demonstrable need for it," airport Manager Terry Grevious said. "We think there's a need for jet service in the lakeshore area and (the chamber of commerce) is going to help us get that, and we believe the airlines will respond positively."

In the years ahead, many airlines are expected to replace propeller-driven aircraft with similar-sized jets.

"We think our market is one that can support (jet) aircraft and will stimulate a lot of activity here. We need to set ourselves up for that," Grevious said. "There's a preference by the consumer to fly on a jet aircraft. There's just a perception thing about the jet being better."

Muskegon County Airport needs to position itself now for the coming changes in order to get jet service, maintain current flight schedules and add new routes, said Rich Robinson, chairman of the chamber's new task force.

"Now is the time to get the travel here," said Robinson, the managing partner of the accounting firm Conn Geneva & Robinson in Norton Shores, who serves as the Chamber of Commerce's treasurer and chairs the annual Muskegon Air Fair.

"If the numbers aren't there, we risk losing some of our services," he said. "We've got to make the move now and get the passenger traffic in there."

A study the airport commissioned last year of ticket purchases made during the summer of 2001 shows Muskegon County holding a 25.3 percent market share within its main four-county service area, where nearly three out of every four airline tickets sold are for air service at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.

The study concluded that the Muskegon airport could "reasonably expect" to capture a minimum 50 percent share of the existing market simply through greater awareness and service enhancements and estimated its "true market" at more than 189,000 passengers annually.

The hope is that the additional market share will come via jet service that business travelers increasingly prefer and demand, Grevious said. The most likely candidate for service improvements — and the airline Muskegon County will target — is Northwest, he said.

The Chamber of Commerce task force will work to secure commitments from 100 companies to use Muskegon County Airport more frequently for business travel, Larsen said. Seeking to make the effort a regional initiative, Larsen plans to solicit participation of chambers of commerce in other communities along the lakeshore, from Holland to Ludington.

Muskegon's effort to boost passenger traffic and air service is not seen as a competitive threat to Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

The increased business Muskegon may record, either through gaining market share or stimulating increased air travel overall in the lakeshore region, represents only a fraction of Gerald R. Ford Airport's annual volume of nearly 2 million passengers, said Bruce Schedlbauer, marketing and communications manager of the Grand Rapids airport.  

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