Economic Development and Travel & Tourism

Gerald R. Ford International Airport plans for next 20 years

New traffic control tower, federal inspection station highlight list of needs.

February 23, 2018
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Airport Master Plan
The 20-year plan focuses on airfield and terminal needs, including replacement of the tower and a future parking structure. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford International Airport

The 20-year master plan for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport is nearly complete.

The plan outlines how to accommodate future growth of the airport, focusing on airfield and terminal needs.

To accommodate future growth, there are two top challenges that need to be addressed, said James Gill, the airport’s president and CEO.

There is an “absolute need” for a new traffic control tower. At about 55 years old, he said it is the second-oldest tower of the top 100 commercial airports in the country.

The placement of the current tower is inhibiting vertical growth, he said.

The fourth level of the parking garage is not covered because the building would prohibit the air traffic controllers from seeing part of the taxiway on the north side of the airport, for example.

“For a lot of what we need for the future, we need the air traffic control tower to move,” Gill said. “That tower is critical in the future master plan because a lot of the facilities we’re looking at in that master plan are not possible without a tower relocation.”

That includes a future parking structure and any development on nearby parcels of land available for lease, as well as a new runway on the north side of the airport.

Part of the master plan includes three potential sites for a new tower. Between getting Federal Aviation Administration approval, design and construction, he said he thinks it will take about three to five years. The FAA would fund that project.

The second upcoming project is the construction of a federal inspection station, a customs and border protection space in the terminal that will allow the airport to accept inbound commercial international flights.

Detroit and Lansing are the only two airports in Michigan that accept those types of flights.

With Grand Rapids being the second-largest city in Michigan, Gill said, “we need to build that.”

“I hear about it all the time,” he said.

The commercial international travel would start small, with seasonal traffic to Mexico.

For customs and border protection, Gill said the biggest obstacle is staffing. Once that is approved, he said he thinks it would take about two years to complete the project, which would be funded by the airport.

Before moving forward on these projects, Gill said it will take time to receive commitments from the entities in charge of those areas.

“The challenge is moving quickly enough because we’re having phenomenal growth,” he said. “We’re continuing to see challenges that result from that growth, and we need to be able to be nimble and respond.

“We’re really fortunate that we’re in a community that has the challenges that come along with growth.”

Gill said project decisions are made based on passenger levels, and the airport has “turned the course.”

Data still are being compiled, but Gill said January alone has “broken records.”

“This last January has been the absolute best January we have ever had. It’s double-digit growth,” he said.

He said the two projects are “pivotal” to accommodate that sort of growth going forward.

The master plan is going through final refinements, including updates on project timing.

Once it is finished, there will be a final presentation and discussion with the FAA.

The plan is the result of collaboration between many entities, including The Right Place, an economic development organization based in Grand Rapids.

Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of the organization, as well as a board member of the airport authority, said 20 years is a long time, but it is important for the airport to project that far into the future.

“I remember sitting on that committee 20 years ago, and everything we planned, we actually did,” she said.

Klohs said the airport has become more than just infrastructure.

“It has become a key place where people first touch the community,” she said.

Klohs said that’s why it is so important to look ahead and make sure the airport has the “wherewithal” to accommodate growth.

“If the community continues to grow, the airport then will continue to grow because the airport’s growth and success … is a direct correlation to an economy in West Michigan that is doing extremely well,” she said.

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