Up Up And Away Maybe

July 23, 2007
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One of the more dramatic and consistent indicators of economic growth in any region is whether the travel/transportation sector is positively impacted on a continuing basis. We are seeing that again at West Michigan's most prominent airport, and it's just the latest issue on the airport management's "to-do list" to keep the facility at the forefront of the area's leisure and business travel offerings.

The latest project taking flight at GFIA will get off the ground this September with a four-story parking ramp and an improved terminal building — the single largest infrastructure development project in the airport's history. While construction work on the roads and at the airport can cause massive disruption for area travelers, few would argue with the results.

GFIA took an undeserved hit recently when U.S. News & World Report indicated the local airport had the highest (worst) "Misery Index" out of the 53 regional airports included in the ranking. It would have been easy to deduce from local media coverage that it was the airport itself that received the "miserable" score. That was not the case, but it does shine the spotlight on a larger, ongoing concern for airport management and local flyers: Not enough seats are being provided by air carriers for passengers flying in and out of KentCounty

Airline service deficiencies (not facility shortcomings) at the airport are put in focus by the Misery Index as the two major scoring criteria — airline on-time performance and airline average load factor (percent of seats filled) are not good. In fact, they are poor even in relation to other regional airports, many of which suffer from the same non-hub disadvantages placed on them by biased airline prioritization and substandard performance.

The Kent County Aeronautics Board and airport management have heard and continue to react to the concerns raised by economic developers and tourism officials regarding the importance of being able to reach Grand Rapids from afar in a convenient, timely fashion. JW Marriott would not build a top-shelf hotel in this town if its management did not recognize the potential for attracting audiences from across the globe. A soundly connected air travel system is crucial to reaching those markets.

For the past five years, legacy air carriers have been going through bankruptcies, and although Delta and Northwest are among those recently emerging from those economic clouds, it remains to be seen how much effort will be placed on fully serving communities such as Grand Rapids. Financial woes aside, indications remain that the air carriers don't always play fair, and that's at the expense of the traveling public.

More airliner wheels may not need to touch the ground at GFIA. But more seats must be made available. The travelers will be waiting. They will have more places to park and an improved terminal in which to conduct travel business. But the "misery" brought upon us by the air carriers must not continue to bring a black eye to our area. GFIA management will keep plugging away.     

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