Airport flying high this year

November 8, 2010
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Executive Director James Koslosky said the Gerald R. Ford International Airport had a very good year through the first nine months of 2010, when passenger traffic rose by 22 percent compared to the same period a year ago. He also said that increase may be the best in the nation.

"All our carriers are performing very well. Delta is adding capacity as we speak. We've seen positive growth and we're proud of that," said Koslosky. "A majority (of the increase) is a recapturing of what we lost over the last six years."

The airport served more than 1.8 million passengers in 2009, and this year that number is expected to top 2 million.

The passenger turnaround began last year when Allegiant Air started flying from GFIA, a move that led to lower airfares and new destinations being offered at the airport. Prior to Allegiant's arrival, previous GFIA travelers were driving to other airports to catch cheaper flights.

AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines began flying from GFIA in May, and lower airfares and more destinations were further established at the regional airport, which serves 13 counties. Then Allegiant and Chautauqua Airlines —a contract flyer for Frontier, United Express and American — brought crews to the airport and set up maintenance bases this year.

"We will be filling up all of our gates in the next several years," said Phil Johnson, GFIA deputy executive director. Johnson added that airport administration and the aeronautics board are looking at ways to expand the gates to accommodate the growing passenger traffic.

Despite that good news, Koslosky and Johnson said the airport's top priority isn't filling airplane seats. "Our focus at the airport is safety and security," said Koslosky. "We're a recognized leader in airport practices."

The Federal Aviation and the Transportation Security administrations have found the airport free of major discrepancies during safety inspections and security assessments of the airfield, the airline apron and the terminal building for at least the last four years. "Again, safety and security are paramount in this area," said Johnson.

Koslosky pointed out that GFIA is like a small city. He said the airport's property, which measures five square miles, is larger than East Grand Rapids and nearly as large as Grandville. Like a city, GFIA has its own police, fire and maintenance departments and is responsible for raising its own revenue. Even though Kent County owns the airport, GFIA doesn't receive financial support from the county's general fund. The airport has a variety of revenue sources that it counts on for its operations, including rental agreements with 53 primary tenants.

The newest tenant is the West Michigan Aviation Academy, an aviation-themed charter school that Dick and Betsy DeVos started on airport property just a few months ago. "We believe it's the first and only aviation high school on an airport in the country," said Koslosky.

Net operating revenue is expected to reach nearly $8.9 million this year, up by $1.2 million from the $7.7 million recorded last year. Total air cargo is expected to reach 80 million tons, which would be up from 76.5 million tons handled there last year.

This year also marks the first year the debt service for the new parking structure and the improvements made to the terminal area is being fully allocated, following the $118 million upgrade the aeronautics board made to the airport over a two-year period. "We essentially have rebuilt the airport over the last 15 years," said Koslosky.

Over the last decade, the type of airline that has served the airport has changed. The major airlines, such as Northwest, United and Delta, carried 61 percent of the passengers that flew from GFIA in 2000. But by 2009, their market share there had fallen to 25 percent. At the same time, smaller national and regional airlines grew market share over those 10 years, going from 38 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2009. They captured that growth by offering more flights and using smaller planes, like turboprops with 19 to 68 seats and regional jets with 30 to 100 seats.

Koslosky told the Business Journal he doesn't particularly care whether a 120-seat airbus or a 70-seat commuter plane flies from the airport. He said the key is to have air service, and he isn't concerned whether the color of a plane's tail is that of Southwest Airline or AirTran. He also said having more small airlines at the airport hasn't changed the number of cities that Delta-Northwest services from GFIA. "I think it's the market," he said.

But Koslosky did say that he feels the trend of smaller airlines capturing a bigger passenger share may be coming to a close, as he is seeing a shift back to larger aircraft. He said the industry will likely change, again, as will the passenger market at GFIA in the immediate future. "It won't look the same two years from now."

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