Focus and Travel & Tourism

Airports expect fewer travel snarls during holidays

Detroit and Ford question report stating half of world’s airports will face delays.

December 13, 2013
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Gerald R. Ford Airport
Gerald R. Ford International Airport is served by six passenger airlines with 120 daily scheduled non-stop flights to and from 24 major market destinations. Courtesy Ford airport

LANSING — Travel becomes more frustrating on the day before major holidays, the U.S. Travel Association warns, but airport officials in Detroit and Grand Rapids aren’t concerned.

An association report predicts that in the next 15 years, more than half of the world’s largest airports will face that problem due to increases in travelers. The report said in the first half of 2013, enplanements increased 3 percent, more than in past years.

Tara Hernandez, communications manager at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, said she hasn’t seen the type of delays the report is predicting. She said it could be because of the size of the airport. Since it is not a large airport, it could be avoiding the problem.

More people are traveling, Hernandez agreed, and more businesses are using air travel again. Airlines are trying to accommodate them by making it easier for passengers, but because larger airports handle more people, they find it harder to match the efficiency of smaller airports, she said.

Hernandez said that after Sept. 11, 2001, the number of passengers decreased. However, as the years have gone by, the number of passengers has grown again.

In 2003, the Gerald R. Ford Airport served more than 1 million people, Hernandez said. In 2012, that number grew to more than 2 million and continues to rise.

Michael Conway, director of public affairs at Detroit Metro Airport, says there are fewer holiday-eve delays now.

“The waits are reducing, and the reason is because there are less aircraft in the sky,” Conway said. “Airlines are reducing their flight schedules quite a bit. Therefore, there’s a capacity issue.”

Conway said some of the problems arose in the mid-2000s when the number of passengers grew but airport capacity did not keep pace.

“What’s happened since the recession in 2008 is airlines realized they couldn’t fly as many planes with fewer passengers, so they reduced their schedules,” Conway said.

To solve the problem, planes flew with a higher load factor, which means more seats filled per flight.

Some preventive measures can be taken to keep airports running smoothly and ward off the predicted increase in travel delays, according to Conway. Detroit Metro has newer terminals that allow the airport to remain flexible with the ever-changing technology in passenger screening checkpoints.

“For instance, in one terminal there are false floors where all of the wiring, cabling and fiber optic that feeds the passenger screening checkpoints are,” Conway said. “So when there is a change in technology, they don’t have to drill through the terrazzo to make the change. They just take the false floor out.”

Conway said he doesn’t think travel delays are going to become a part of daily life, especially in the terminal area.

“The only place you’re going to really find congestion is sometimes at check counters,” said Conway. Sometimes during holidays, with people flying more for leisure, the arrival drop-off area also will be busier than when most travelers are business fliers, he added.

The larger problems are spatial — when airports need more runways or more room, but that isn’t the case in Detroit, which won’t need to expand its airfield until 2040, he said.

Although he said he hopes the economy picks up and results in more passengers, the airport has seen a consistent number of fliers for the past three years.

“Travel delays becoming the ‘new normal’ doesn’t make sense to me,” said Conway. “There are less delays than ever — less delays than in the mid-2000s because there is less capacity in sky.”

By reducing capacity, airlines have been able to increase demand, making some airports profitable even in the recession, Conway said.

Conway said the widespread belief that the day before Thanksgiving is the worst travel day of the year is a myth. The actual busiest travel day is the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

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