Focus, Economic Development, and Travel & Tourism

Southwest Airlines’ arrival changes airport’s perception

Travelers and visitors should benefit from low cost-carrier’s presence at Gerald R. Ford International.

July 26, 2013
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Southwest Airlines will begin its Grand Rapids service Aug. 11 with its first flight going to St. Louis.

The low-cost carrier announced in February it would offer six nonstop daily flights to four destinations from Grand Rapids: Baltimore, Orlando, St. Louis and Denver.

The addition of Southwest service is a big deal for the region — one that stakeholders in the area have been pursuing for 13 years. The airline transports more domestic passengers per year than any other.

The addition of Southwest service will replace that of AirTran Airways, which Southwest purchased in 2011. AirTran was the first low-cost carrier to enter the Grand Rapids market, coming to the area in 2009 and providing service to Orlando and Baltimore.

“When AirTran came in, obviously it brought low-cost service to our market, and going to Baltimore and Orlando allowed you to connect to nine different other cities,” said Brian Ryks, airport executive director. “The significance of Southwest not only continuing their Baltimore and Orlando service, but also adding St. Louis and Denver means you will be able to now connect to more than 40 other markets throughout the Southwest system.

“The important thing about St. Louis and Denver, especially, is it really opens up a lot of west-bound markets and additional southeast markets that currently we don’t have one-stop service to.”

Following Southwest’s purchase of AirTran, Grand Rapids service was not a guarantee. Ryks pointed out the airline decided to stop service in 14 markets where AirTran previously operated.

“Once Southwest purchased AirTran, we still had to work to convince Southwest that it was a viable market for them to continue operating in,” said Ryks.

He believes Grand Rapids and the West Michigan region will be able to sustain the service, and credits Experience Grand Rapids, in part, for its efforts that have led to the region becoming a destination city.

Following Southwest’s announcement, low-cost carrier Frontier indicated it would end its Grand Rapids relationship.

Frontier has been operating a daily flight to Denver. It is common practice for the airline to end service in airports where Southwest has moved in due to the competition for the Denver market.

“Are we disappointed? Yes, we are,” Ryks said. “We would have loved to retain Frontier as an airline here, but at the same time we weren’t surprised.

“I think we will maintain our existing seat capacity to Denver, but again the good thing about Southwest and their Denver service is that there will be many more connecting opportunities than I think Frontier had to offer.”

Prior to Southwest’s arrival, Grand Rapids had a lot of room to grow in terms of carrier service. Ryks said now the airport has certainly taken a step up in caliber, but he still sees room for increased service.

“It’s always high on our priority list to continue to seek out as many nonstop destinations and connecting opportunities as possible, and we will certainly continue that as we go,” Ryks said.

“I think the best example of that may be with the American (Airlines) and US Air merger. We think there are some additional opportunities that will result from that merger that we will continue to pursue, along with other low-cost carrier options.”

In addition to carriers and service destinations, the airport is continuing to improve its facilities and enhancing customer service.

Renovations to Concourse B are under way, Concourse A will see some minor updates, and the security checkpoints will be consolidated, opening up more retail and concession options for travelers beyond the checkpoint.

Ryks said that the airport’s partnership with Experience Grand Rapids’ Ambassador Program is already enhancing customer service. Experience Grand Rapids trains ambassadors to assist visitors with all types of information about the city — accommodations, restaurants, activities and other advice.

“They do a great job. … We’ve received so many compliments related to the information that these ambassadors are giving out.”

The airport also recently joined Twitter and expects to grow its social media presence as another way to enhance its customer service and communicate with travelers in the region.

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