Government and Travel & Tourism

Airport authority proposed to govern GFIA

June 6, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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The Aeronautics Board of Kent County will soon consider a proposal to convert the governance of Gerald R. Ford International Airport to an airport authority.

GFIA is the property of Kent County, and that ownership would continue. Under an authority, however, it would no longer be operated by the county as an enterprise fund.

The concept of an airport authority was first raised in 2011 by county officials; in November the Aeronautics Board created a governance committee to work with an airport management consulting firm to study the issues. David Slikkers, a member of the Aeronautics Board and chair of its governance committee, said the study took six months and was recently completed.

“The recommendation of the governance committee is to move forward in making the transition from county governance to airport authority governance,” said Slikkers.

Slikkers stressed that the proposal is in “very early conceptual stages,” with no formal decisions or changes made yet. He predicted months of considerations to come, by both the Aeronautics Board and the Kent County Board of Commissioners, which appoints the Aeronautics Board.

He also stressed that the county Board of Commissioners has done a very good job over the years of overseeing the airport, especially in view of the recent expansion at GFIA.

Slikkers said that compared to the airport’s current system of governance by the county, an airport authority would be “pretty autonomous,” and would operate more like an entrepreneurial enterprise.

GFIA’s ability to compete with others in the region is “largely driven now by what we can do to attract the competitive airlines — so you have to think like an enterprise today,” said Slikkers.

Airport governance and its management needs to be “agile, somebody who is quick and nimble, to respond to the market changes and shifts that are going on in the (air travel) industry,” he said.

Slikkers said the “biggest issue” facing GFIA is “how do we continue to position Grand Rapids as an attractive and desirable market for the airlines?”

Airlines today “go where they can get seats filled, period,” said Slikkers.

He said the business community in West Michigan has helped GFIA, citing the addition of Southwest Airlines last year. Southwest, credited with helping boost passenger traffic in 2013, had acquired AirTran — and AirTran had previously begun service at Ford, due in large part to the efforts of Dick DeVos and the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan.

Slikkers said GFIA needs “the preferred routes, the preferred aircraft, the preferred rates,” because that attracts more air travelers and more business to the region.

Several airports in Michigan — including Muskegon — have commercial airline service only because of Essential Air Service grants from the federal government. GFIA, however, does not quality for an EAS grant.

When the government deregulated the airline industry years ago, low-volume routes were quickly dropped by the carriers. Congressional leaders, however, then created the EAS to entice air carriers to serve certain regions. Muskegon is receiving almost $1.4 million this year for its guaranteed air service, and ESA grants also go to Manistee, Pellston, Sault Ste. Marie, Escanaba and Alpena. Alpena, for example, gets $3 million and Manistee gets $2 million.

Slikkers said other airports in Michigan that are operated by an authority include Detroit Metro, Lansing and Flint. He noted that another 12 to 15 U.S. airports changed from a regional or local governance model in recent years to the airport authority model.

“About 42 or 43 percent of airports in the U.S. today are airport authorities. So it’s a trend that just keeps expanding, because of that need to be entrepreneurial in your thinking, to keep your airport on the edge,” he said.

Policy and general oversight of GFIA are the responsibility of the Aeronautics Board, seven individuals appointed by the Kent County Board of Commissioners. The Aeronautics Board is comprised of three Kent County commissioners and three Kent County citizen members, plus one citizen member from a county other than Kent in West Michigan. Slikkers, CEO of S2 Yachts and Energetx Composites LLC in Holland, is that seventh member. The Aeronautics Board named him to head its governance committee in November, when the board hired LeighFisher, an airport management consulting firm in San Francisco, to study the feasibility of changing to an airport authority system at GFIA.

Besides Slikkers, the governance committee includes two members of the county commission and Kent County Administrator Daryl Delabbio, plus Brian Ryks, executive director of GFIA, as well as others representing businesses in Kent County and Grand Valley State University.

Slikkers said the governance committee provides “a good regional view of the airport and its potential future.”

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