Government and Travel & Tourism

Southwest might land at airport next year

Airline will transform AirTran operation at GFIA into its own.

December 1, 2012
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Southwest might land at airport next year
Airports served by Southwest Airlines tend to see lower fares and increased passenger traffic — a result dubbed “The Southwest Effect” by The U.S. Department of Transportation. © iStockphoto.com
Gerald R. Ford International Airport Executive Director Brian Ryks expects that Southwest Airlines will begin operating at the Kent County-owned airport sometime in 2013, most likely in the second half of next year.

Ryks made his comment last week before members of the county’s Legislative Committee. He added that the upcoming service from Southwest Airlines, which airport officials have hoped to land for years, became a reality when the noted discount carrier acquired AirTran Airways in May 2011. AirTran is a low-cost airline with a presence at the airport and has made a positive impact on service.

Early this year, Southwest said it would convert AirTran operations into its own over time, and it now appears that transformation will occur here next year. AirTran was serving 69 cities when it was purchased, but Southwest indicated it would only convert 53 into its own operations. “That was a significant accomplishment as not all airports were designated,” said Ryks.

AirTran stopped service in six cities last August.

Ryks pointed out that, in 2007, GFIA didn’t have a single low-cost carrier. Delta and Northwest airlines captured more than half of ticket sales that year. Now the airport offers flights from three discount airlines — AirTran, Allegiant and Frontier. Delta and Northwest’s share of ticket sales fell into the 40 percent share last year.

“We’ve gone from no low-cost market share to 27 percent,” he said, adding that getting more discount airlines is what airport officials want to do, but it takes time to accomplish. “More competition means more competitive rates.”

GFIA set a passenger record last year by serving 2.27 million people, an increase of 4 percent from 2010. Ryks felt that number would drop to 2.16 million passengers this year. He said the demand is still there, but the airport has fewer seats to offer passengers.

The airport is served by seven airlines that offer 112 daily non-stop flights to and from 21 major destinations. “That is very good service for a city our size, but we’re looking to improve it,” he said.

Last year was also a good year for air cargo. A total of 80.7 million pounds of freight was handled, up by a percentage point from the previous year. As for this year, 81 million pounds are projected. “We’re a tremendous economic engine. We employ 1,800 individuals and generate about $500 million in economic activity,” said Ryks.

Ryks indicated there may be more construction projects at the airport in the coming years. Some would alter concourses and could increase concession revenue. But the biggest possible project would add a roof to the top level of the parking structure, which gets little customer use during winter. The cost to do that would run from $15 million to $20 million.

Rothbury Executive Air was planning to break ground on its new facility at the airport in October, but Ryks said the firm will do that in April. It will be the airport’s third fixed-based operator that offers fuel, aircraft maintenance, avionic services and food for charter flights. The firm’s lease survived a circuit court challenge from airport tenants Northern Air and Grand Rapids Air Center last spring.

Northern Air and GR Air have taken the complaint — that the airport’s board violated its own rules when it agreed to the Rothbury lease — to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Rothbury entered into a 10-year lease, with three 10-year options, at the airport. The contract requires the company to make capital improvements of $6.5 million to its GFIA site and pay $155,000 in rent and fuel fees each year.

“Rothbury should be up and running at the end of next year,” said Ryks, who has been GFIA executive director for five months. “I’m pleased with what I’ve seen.”

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