Airport Focuses On Retention

December 12, 2003
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CASCADE — The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the recession of 2001 and more recently, the SARS outbreak, all converged to create “the perfect storm” that sent the airline industry into a tailspin. 

The falloff in passenger activity, coupled with high debt and high operating costs, forced many of the major airlines to reduce service in selected markets.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported in October that U.S. airlines carried 6.4 percent fewer domestic passengers during the first half of this year, compared with the first half of 2001.

Conversely, passenger activity at Gerald R. Ford International Airport is up 3 percent.

In August, Delta Connections began offering an additional flight from Ford International to Atlanta.

In October, Continental Airlines announced the start of twice-daily jet service from Grand Rapids to Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport.

All over the nation, airports are fighting to retain existing airline services, said Kent County Aeronautics Director James Koslosky.

In the West Michigan market there are five airports operating within a 50-mile radius of one another that have major airline service, Koslosky noted.

“There are major cities that don’t have that many. We have a wealth of air service. The question is, how long can a region hold on to that air service?”

He thinks that over time there’s bound to be some attrition among airports in the regional market.

“We need to be knocking on doors, because an airline’s assets are easily transferable from one airport to another,” Koslosky said.

Over the past month airport staff have been taking a more aggressive approach to attracting and retaining airline service here.

For the first time it its history, the airport has initiated an air service incentive program that offers airlines a six-month waiver on their landing and parking fees.

The airlines probably won’t flock here just to take advantage of the waiver, Koslosky said, but it does represent a cost incentive for the already beleaguered mainline carriers.

“More landed aircraft brings down the landing fee for everybody because we’re a cost-based operation.”

In addition, Ford International has launched a co-op marketing support program.

Under the program, any commercial aeronautical service provider that is a tenant of the airport and wishes to advertise their services within Ford International’s primary service region (Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties) can get 50 percent reimbursement on a TV, radio, billboard, print ad or ad campaign.

To qualify for 50 percent reimbursement, a minimum of 15 percent of the advertisement must contain a direct reference to Ford International and its official logo and/or its slogan, explained Bruce Schedlbauer, the airport’s marketing and communications manager.

“The advertisement or ad campaign must be submitted to us in advance for review and approval prior to the advertising activity commencing. Once the ad runs and we receive confirmation that it did run, then we will provide reimbursement of 50 percent of the expense for that ad or ad campaign up to a maximum of $15,000 per advertising occurrence.” 

Ford International also is looking to hire an air service development consultant to help market the airport to airlines.

The aeronautics board is expected to make a decision on the newly created position this week.

Meanwhile, Ford International’s management and engineering teams, along with consultant HNTB Corp., continue to work on the master plan update, which will serve as a blueprint for short, intermediate and long-term airport development.

“What I’m finding so far is that we have an excellent facility,” Koslosky told the Business Journal last week. “We have a benchmark airport that is looked at by other airports both nationally and internationally.”

He said the master plan forecast indicates that Ford International will double passenger totals over the next 20 years, which represents an annual growth rate of about 3.4 percent.

Cargo activity is expected to grow about 4 percent, and aircraft operations are expected to increase more modestly at a rate of about 2 percent a year over the next two decades.

“On the airfield side we’re in excellent condition,” Koslosky said. “We have all new infrastructure, except for some minor taxiways. And we have adequate capacity in the airfield for the next 20 years, probably beyond.”

The terminal building will need to be expanded, however, from about 270,000 square feet to about 330,000 square feet to accommodate the doubling of passengers.

The airport will also need to add two to four concourse gates, Koslosky noted.

He said based on traffic counts and forecasted traffic growth, the existing roadway system serving the airport is adequate for the next 20 years, but about 2,300 more parking spaces will be needed by 2023.

Whatever the air cargo demand, he said, the new Air Cargo and Trade Center has 140 acres on which to expand, so it’s good to go for the next 50 to 100 years.

Ford International’s general aviation facilities — which serve all aircraft with the exception of the scheduled airlines — will need to be redeveloped because many of them have reached the end of their useful lives, he said.    

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