'It Really, Really, Really Matters'

December 12, 2007
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It was news that officially confirmed the obvious, but it only further illuminates the dire nature of the situation. James Koslosky, director of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, reported last week a soon-to-be released study will document that the airport is losing customers to other airports because the airlines are cutting back flights to fill more seats on fewer trips in order to raise airfares.

Koslosky also noted the recent “leakage” study not only confirmed that fewer seats are being made available by the airlines departing Kent County, but the clientele the airport is losing as a consequence includes premium customers (such as business travelers) who are not looking for discounted fares. These air transport users are likely seeking departure locations that will get them to destinations in a timely and efficient manner in order to conduct trade in a fast-paced global economy.

Fewer seats have forced those who normally would have flown from Ford to drive to other airports. Somewhat surprisingly, these travelers are not heading in droves to closer regional airports in Flint, Lansing and Kalamazoo, but more frequently are making the trek to Chicago’s busy O’Hare airport in order to get a place in line and seats in the air.

Grand Rapids cannot expect to compete effectively in a global economy without securing air carrier services that leave travelers with enough options to get in and out of the area on a regular basis. Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc. regional economic development organization, recently said that in today’s global environment it would be very difficult to market any community and to retain, expand and attract new business without a viable airport. Klohs has been on more than 80 overseas missions to capture new business for West Michigan, and one of the first questions foreign companies ask about is the area’s airport facilities.

“We market this region, and infrastructure matters — water, sewer, roads and airports. It really, really, really matters,” Klohs said, pointing out that there are more than 2,000 manufacturing businesses in Michigan, many of them global enterprises making high-tech products that serve diverse industries both domestically and abroad. The region’s growing life sciences and health care sectors are giving rise to innovative businesses. But, as Klohs pointed out, the airport is crucial to both those pieces of the regional economy and plays significantly in selling this region.

Local airport officials are doing what they can to lure additional flights and air carriers. Federal law prevents them from using airport funds to directly subsidize air service. Period. Incentives such as temporarily waiving fees, offering the airlines parking and other minor perks are not enough for a carrier to focus on this market. The community at large, however, could subsidize air service, and that has been done in other areas.

The business community needs to remain a forceful and vocal player in these discussions. Effective strategic planning and growth mechanisms are being put in place here every day. Why not put this issue at the top of the inbox? It’s time for a unified approach on boosting air service at this area’s primary and vital transportation venue. In lieu of securing unlikely hub status, a unified local concentration on the issue is the next best bet.

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