AirTran A game changer

October 18, 2010
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Present a bargain to leisure and business travelers from West Michigan, and a domino effect essential the area’s economic development will follow.

That was the message touted last week by advocates for lower air fare rates in this market who point to the need for travelers to continue to embrace lower flight cost opportunities at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in particular in order to ensure a continuation of the more affordable options.

The number of passengers boarding airline flights at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, as well as facilities in Kalamazoo, Lansing, Muskegon and Traverse City is projected to spike 15 percent this year after historic low air travel numbers in West Michigan hit the charts just a few years ago, according to figures compiled by the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan.

Credit for the drop in air fares and the surge in use goes to the arrival of low-cost carrier AirTran Airways in the West Michigan market, alliance leaders said last week. Robert Fornaro, chairman, president and CEO of AirTran Holdings Inc. and its subsidiary, AirTran Airways Inc., visited West Michigan to speak at Thursday’s annual meeting of the Association for Corporate Growth Western Michigan Chapter.

During a media tour of the area earlier in the day with Dick DeVos and Dan Wiersma, executive director for RAAWM, Fornaro told the Business Journal that even before the Orlando-based AirTran officially began service out of GRFIA in May, “the incumbent carriers were reacting to our announcement and making fare adjustments and adding capacity. We were positively impacting the market and that’s been our pattern wherever we’ve gone.”

“The trend line in West Michigan (commercial air travel) was a problem,” Dick DeVos, organizer of the RAAWM who united business leaders throughout the region in an effort to woo a low-cost carrier to the area, told the Business Journal. DeVos noted air fares at Gerald R. Ford International Airport have been 25 percent above the national average.

DeVos formed the alliance after seeing airport, government and tourism industry officials, “despite their best efforts,” hit a brick wall when attempting to lure lower costs and more seat capacity.

“Sometimes it’s not just the message but the messenger,” DeVos said in noting airline officials are constantly bombarded by airport managements with service solicitations. “When a business leader, surrounded by an impressive list of other West Michigan business leaders come together to advocate on the area’s behalf, that’s what flipped the switch.”

Fornaro said the 17-year-old air carrier had its eyes on the local market due to its Midwest geographic location, a good leisure travel base and flourishing business market.

Southwest Airlines announced in September that it plans to purchase AirTran for an estimated $1.42 billion.

Fornaro cited the need for shareholder and federal government approval of the sale and said, “I’m not going to commit” regarding the possibility of Southwest starting service in Grand Rapids if a proposed merger is OK’d.

“However, if we stay on trends and we’re getting support that we deserve, Southwest is going to say this is a place we want to add service,” Fornaro said. Southwest management has indicated that once the two airlines are united, which could take up to two years, markets served by AirTran would be retained.

He also allayed concerns expressed to the Business Journal recently by Doug Small, Experience Grand Rapids president, that services for the business-class passenger might be diminished because Southwest tends to appeal to leisure travelers while AirTran is a two-class service that caters strongly to business travelers.

“Southwest has more business travelers than anyone else,” Fornaro said. “… They are very pro-business. For Southwest, this merger is about opening their largest unserved market, which is Atlanta. For AirTran, what we do is gain access to Southwest’s formidable financial resources.”

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