Focus, Economic Development, and Travel & Tourism

Airport starting 2016 on a high note

GFIA experiences a 10 percent to 12 percent surge in annual passenger counts.

December 25, 2015
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Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

2015 was a record-breaker for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, which saw its passenger numbers grow beyond 2014 a month before the year was over.

GFIA reported this month that through November 2015, year-to-date passenger numbers totaled 2,347,424 — surpassing 2014’s January-November passenger count of 2,142,355.

That put the airport 9.57 percent above its 2014 passenger numbers.

“We are thrilled with those numbers,” said Brian Ryks, GFIA executive director.

Ryks said going into 2016, the airport is already up 10 to 12 percent from last year’s passenger numbers. He said the growth is notable because similarly sized airports across the country are not seeing the same increases.

“We are standing out above other airports with that growth,” he said.

There are a few factors Ryks said he believes are contributing to GFIA’s banner year.

First, he noted, the economy is better, which influences travel.

Second, Ryks said the additional air service GFIA has attracted in recent years is having an impact, particularly the addition of Southwest Airlines.

“We have nonstop service to 15 of our top 20 destinations,” he said, noting the remaining destinations are on the West Coast, which makes nonstop service challenging because air carriers typically start service using regional jets, and West Coast nonstop service requires larger aircraft.

Still, Ryks said he is focused on trying to increase the airport’s nonstop service to both the East and West Coasts.

“We are working to retain and grow to as many nonstop destinations as possible,” he said.

One project that might help the airport land more nonstop destinations is the recently announced Switch data center in the former Steelcase Pyramid building.

“If the numbers being projected for travel are close to what they are projecting, that could ultimately end up giving us some additional nonstop destinations,” Ryks said. “We don’t know exactly what those top priorities will be with that project, but we will be digging into that and doing what we can.”

Ryks said the addition of Southwest Airlines has made a big difference for the airport, and low-cost carriers continue to be an important piece of the puzzle.

“It certainly helps business and leisure travelers,” he said.

“Low-cost fares make a huge difference. We are capturing traffic that would have driven to Chicago or Detroit.”

Ryks said the price gap between Grand Rapids airfares and those of Chicago and Detroit has decreased. He said in the top 10 destinations, there is a fare difference of only $20 compared with Detroit and $14 compared with Chicago.

He also noted Southwest’s announcement earlier this year that it would begin offering nonstop service to Chicago’s Midway Airport in 2016 is huge because it connects travelers to even more destinations.

Specifically, Southwest’s GRR-MDW route provides passengers with access to 265 departures a day to 69 cities via the Southwest network, which reaches across the United States and Latin America, the airport said previously.

Ryks said another factor in the airport’s growth is the work being done by organizations like Experience Grand Rapids, West Michigan Sports Commission and The Right Place, all of which are working to attract more people to the community.

“It’s not just about getting people from Grand Rapids to where they want to go; it’s also about getting people here,” he said.

GFIA is also working to improve the customer experience by upgrading its facility.

In the last couple of years it completed a remodel of Concourse B, launched a new website that is easier to use and offers more features, unveiled a new visitor center to help travelers, added covered parking, and introduced artwork and therapy dogs to improve the traveling experience.

Ryks said the upgrades would continue in 2016 with GFIA’s $45 million Gateway Transformation project. The first phase began this month and will continue through 2016. It includes expanding the Grand Hall by 40,000 square feet to accommodate a consolidated security checkpoint and retail marketplace.

Concourse A also will undergo remodeling similar to what was done in Concourse B, so both concourses offer travelers more amenities and a better experience.

“It’s an exciting project,” Ryks said. “It will have its challenges, given the growth of passengers, but we will do our best to make it as convenient as possible for our passengers.”

Ryks said the airport also will update its master plan in 2016, which will provide guidance for the next 10 to 20 years: “Where do we want this airport to go in the next 10 to 20 years?”

Also in 2016, the airport will complete its transition from county board governance to regional airport authority governance. Ryks said GFIA expects final approval from the FAA for the new GFIA Airport Authority July 1.

The airport’s operating certificate will be transferred from Kent County to the GFIA Airport Authority.

“At that point, the Airport Authority will be its own entity,” Ryks said. “It’s very exciting.”

He said the governance change will give GFIA more flexibility in developing policies and procedures and will strengthen collaboration opportunities. It also will create a stronger platform for economic development.

“I think it’s the right model and positions the airport for future growth during a very competitive time in the industry,” Ryks said.

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