Economic Development, Government, and Travel & Tourism

Regional Air Alliance saved West Michigan $100 million

September 13, 2013
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The Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan is ready to fold its wings.

When the announcement was made in February that Southwest Airlines would begin offering services at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in August, it was a moment of accomplishment for RAAWM, a private sector initiative committed to the improvement and promotion of world-class air service to West Michigan.

In accomplishing its mission, the organization saved the community an estimated $100 million, said Dick DeVos, founder and chairman of the RAAWM and president of The Windquest Group.

That money, which represents an investment in the community, he said, stayed in the pockets of West Michigan and will be a gift that keeps on giving.

“When people travel through the Gerald R. Ford Airport now, they have more options for more flights at less cost, with friendlier service and more customer awareness than they’ve ever had before,” he said. “That is opening up what was a huge restrictor for us economically by not having the commercial air travel.”

RAAWM was created in 2009 as a private organization philanthropically funded by Michigan business leaders who felt declining airline seats coming into and out of the West Michigan marketplace was economically problematic, DeVos said.

The main problem was the airport essentially acted as an expensive, single-lane toll bridge to West Michigan, said Dan Wiersma, RAAWM executive director. RAAWM helped the airport see itself in a broader context: as a hospitality and economic engine, not just a public utility — an attitude shift that changed the dynamic.

“We took a macro, literally 30,000-foot-view and recognized quickly that when it comes to air service and the airlines, in particular, they really aren’t terribly concerned about what slab of pavement their airplane lands on so long as, at the other end, there’s lots of customers and lots of passengers,” Wiersma said.

The team started with the question, “How can you bring in cheap air service?” Wiersma said, but eventually began to see that what was needed was more than low prices.

“‘Cheap’ never solved a problem,” he said. “It was really understanding how the air service platform that serviced Grand Rapids and West Michigan needed to be repositioned, remarketed and re-priced in order to be used for those coming into West Michigan … as well as the increased frequency that businesses have for air service.”

RAAWM needed to be a catalyst, not a part of the reaction but a force that would trigger it, he said, meaning that, from the beginning, the alliance was planned to have a finite life.

With equilibrium achieved and RAAWM’s job done, it’s time to retire the organization, DeVos said, adding that although the attitude brought to the table will live on, it’s also time to move on.

RAAWM will be closed down by the end of 2013, Weirsma said.

“We basically have checked off the boxes we set out (to accomplish) in 2009,” he said. “We’re now actually working on transitioning the initiatives that have a need for ongoing services and maintenance to those best positioned to do that.”

RAAWM’s story might be over, but it’s one DeVos said he’ll look back on and smile at what was accomplished for West Michigan.

“I think this is going to (be) one of the great success stories of West Michigan, of how we do things,” he said. “We just sort of roll up our sleeves and the private sector comes together and we make business decisions in the best interest of the community to go do what needs to be done. And the Regional Air Alliance was a great example.”

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