Muskegon Lands Jets Maybe

April 16, 2004
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MUSKEGON — Airport administrators hope a successful return of jet service to Muskegon County will lead to further upgrades in local air service in the future.

If revenue targets are met during a six-month period after jet service commences in June, Northwest Airlines will continue the service and may consider deploying additional jets at Muskegon County Airport as well as adding flights and destinations.

“Hopefully down the road it’s one more steppingstone toward better service … more flights, more jet service and possibly even more cities,” airport Manager Marty Piette said. “If this goes well, it will happen.”

Northwest Airlines announced plans last week to begin using a 44- or 50-passenger Canadair Regional Jet for the morning daily flight to Detroit and the evening flight back to Muskegon, beginning on June 10. The CRJ jets, operated by Northwest Airlink, are larger and offer more amenities — overhead storage bins, a galley, lavatory and better climate controls — than the turbo-prop aircraft now used.

The airline’s decision will return jet service to Muskegon County Airport after a more than 20-year absence and comes as administrators are working to improve air service and increase passenger traffic. Northwest Airlines’ decision “will improve the transportation options for all West Michigan residents and is the first step in providing better air service for the entire community,” said Bill Gill, chairman of the Muskegon County Transportation Committee.

“This is a huge step for Muskegon County Airport,” Gill said.

Northwest Airlines has committed to using one jet at Muskegon County Airport for at least six months, said Thomas Becher, a manager of media relations.

The airline will decide later, based on revenues and passenger loads, whether to continue the service, creating a “use it or lose it” scenario for Muskegon.

“It made sense to try this out,” Becher said. “It’s on the schedule (in Muskegon) and we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully the demand will warrant a continuation in service.”

A combination of factors led the Minneapolis, Minn.-based airline to decide to bring jet service to Muskegon, including a financial incentive.

If Northwest Airlines does not reach a revenue target of $761,000 per month through the jet service, it can tap into a $500,000 federal grant Muskegon County received last year to provide a revenue guarantee to an airline offering local jet service. Another $100,000 in state and local funding is available for promoting the new service.

At the same time, business leaders for more than a year have pushed an awareness campaign locally to get more people, particularly business travelers, to use Muskegon County Airport when they fly.

A study of ticket purchases made during the summer of 2001 that the airport commissioned two years ago showed Muskegon County holding a 25.3 percent market share within its main four-county service area, where nearly three out of every four tickets sold were 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.

Piette credits the “Fly Muskegon” campaign, created in the wake of the marketing study and spearheaded by the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, with having an “instrumental” role in improving passenger traffic for both Northwest Airlines and Midwest Connect, which operates four daily flights between Muskegon and Milwaukee.

Midwest Connect this year has experienced a 31 percent increase in passengers at Muskegon over a year ago.

Northwest Airlines’ six daily flights between Muskegon and Detroit — three there and three back — now average passenger loads of 65 percent to 70 percent per flight, Piette said. That’s the threshold Northwest Airlines wanted to see on a consistent basis to initiate jet service in Muskegon.

Northwest Airlines also has been looking to replace some turbo-prop aircraft with newer regional jets the air travelers prefer, Becher said. The airline this year acquired 38 of the regional jets for use for selected flights.

“We’re always looking to plug some holes. This is one to plug,” Becher said. “We’re trying to find newer niches for the jets.”   

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