SARS Put Tiny Dent In Georgian Air

May 16, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Flights from Grand Rapids to Toronto have had fewer passengers than usual over the past few weeks.

A handful of reasons can account for the slight dip, one being an ailing economy that led Air Canada to file for bankruptcy protection last month.

But another is due to the discovery of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

“In the overall system it has, for sure, had some impact,” said Paul Mulrooney, president of Air Georgian, a division of Georgian International.

“Simply because of the rest of the problems that are in the industry right now, it is kind of hard to cull out the exact number — whether it be 4 percent or 5 percent. We have seen a slight decline in traffic.

“But year over year, the numbers haven’t been all that bad. By the same token, we haven’t seen a big recovery,” he added.

“I think the impact to us has been minimal in as much as the trans-border traffic that we’ve had going back and forth has stayed fairly consistent throughout the last two months.”

Georgian International is a diverse transportation firm that also sells new autos and is a company that has local business ties.

DP Fox Ventures, which has Dan and Pamella DeVos as its owners, owns half of Georgian International. Jamie Massie, a former college roommate of Dan DeVos’s at Northwood University, owns the other half of the company.

Georgian got its start more than 20 years ago when DeVos and Massie began a Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealership in suburban Toronto. That was in 1981.

“The nature of our relationship with Air Canada is we don’t specifically monitor the precise passenger loads that are realized out of Grand Rapids. I can only assume that it did impact negatively,” said Dan Revell, CFO for Georgian International, of the SARS effect.

At first, Air Georgian was under contract with Canadian Airlines to fly passengers from Grand Rapids to Toronto, until Canadian became part of Air Canada three years ago.

What emerged from that consolidation was Air Alliance Inc., a division of Air Georgian and an entity Georgian International created with Air Canada.

Air Georgian flies three daily non-stops from the Gerald R. Ford International Airport to Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Air Georgian owns the planes, a fleet of Beechcraft 1900Ds, and operates the route for Air Canada. A Beechcraft 1900D seats 18 passengers.

Mulrooney told the Business Journal that none of the flights to Toronto was cancelled because of SARS and he said that business travelers were flying at just below normal levels. He pointed out that most of the cancellations the city has gotten recently came from groups that were scheduled to meet in Toronto.

“Whether we’re going to have a long-term effect from it or not, I would hope not. But I still think we’re suffering from the tourism and convention side of things.

“And that is where you’re going to see the biggest dents,” Mulrooney added, “because it happens in the biggest numbers as opposed to the ones and twos that a business trip cancels.”

The cancellations started on April 21, the day the World Health Organization (WHO) issued an advisory telling people across the globe not to travel to Toronto, a city of 3 million. A few days later, the WHO lifted that ban. But by then two large conventions vital to the city’s economy were called off and budgeted tourism dollars were lost for good.

As of early last week, Health Canada said it had received reports of 318 probable or suspected cases of SARS since April 26. Of those, 139 probable and 119 suspected cases were reported in Ontario, which is home to Toronto. So far, 23 deaths from SARS have been reported in Canada, a nation of 31.4 million people.

In light of the recent chaos sparked by SARS and the WHO, Revell felt that government and medical officials in Toronto and Ontario reacted honestly and rationally to the turmoil. In fact, he said both groups responded as best they could while facing a new disease that no one on the planet understood.

“It was a real shock to everyone. But by the same token, I think everyone in the city has really dug in and tried to respond as proactively and as positively as possible,” he said.

“I think everyone has put their faith in the medical community, that they’re doing everything possible to make sure that the medical issue is being solved. And I think the community itself has reacted very, very well.”

After the WHO lifted its advisory, the Canadian dollar rose to a three-year high against its American counterpart.

Since the warning has passed, plans are to waive hotel taxes for the summer at inns across Ontario. Reduced prices for dinner, theater and hotel packages are in the works, and a $46 million campaign to draw visitors back to Toronto is being designed.

Even the Toronto Blue Jays pitched in by selling tickets for $1 to a recent game. More than 48,000 were sold.

Toronto officials hope those endeavors make the city a popular destination again.

Air Georgian executives say they hope the effort convinces West Michigan business people and tourists to keep, or put, Toronto on their travel agendas.

At the same time, though, Revell said he understood why — with SARS hogging the front pages — potential visitors may have put off a recent trip.

“For people who aren’t from an area like Toronto and are told of something like SARS, you can appreciate if one is in their shoes with being reluctant to travel,” said Revell.

But he couldn’t say the same for the WHO, which he felt jumped the gun with an unwarranted advisory.

Why?

Because he said the health organization knew the disease was contained, and that any visitor to the city would almost assuredly have had to make a trip to a hospital — instead of a museum, theater or restaurant — to be exposed to SARS.

“If you’re living in the community and you understand that the outbreak of the disease has basically been limited to a hospital environment, it’s hard, as a resident of this area, to not think that the WHO has overreacted.”           

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