Economic Development, Real Estate, and Travel & Tourism

Grand Rapids is ‘sweet spot’ for airline base

Leaders say Allegiant’s choice of Gerald R. Ford International Airport reflects on airport’s growth.

January 18, 2019
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Allegiant also considered increasing its presence in Ohio, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia before selecting Grand Rapids. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford International Airport

Allegiant Air revealed it is investing $42.8 million to have two planes based in Grand Rapids, which leaders say is a sign of promising tourism growth.

Beginning in June, these planes will begin and end each day at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, rather than starting somewhere else and flying to Grand Rapids.

Allegiant said it is immediately hiring 55 pilots and flight attendants and 11 ground crew members who all will be based in Grand Rapids, starting work early in the morning and ending the day back in their beds, according to Hilarie Grey, Allegiant’s director of corporate communications.

Grey said this gives the airline more flexibility in its schedule, allowing it to more easily add additional nonstop routes than when Grand Rapids was an outstation.

“I can tell you that having a base really opens up the world of possibilities and that there will be more routes announced,” Grey said. “We may be able to get out to some other cities that we wouldn't have thought of for Grand Rapids before.”

That’s in addition to the two new seasonal flights beginning in June to Nashville, Tennessee, and Savannah, Georgia, that Allegiant announced along with the base project. Allegiant also flies from Grand Rapids to five destinations in Florida, one in Arizona and one in Las Vegas.

The “ultra-low-cost” airline said it offers nonstop service for underserved small- and medium-sized communities.

This will be Allegiant’s 16th base, which was chosen based on input from the airline’s planning team, which Grey said always pays close attention to where the demand is.

“Because the business environment has changed so much and it's a fast-growing kind of place, they've seen a lot of demand that's not being met for routes here,” Grey said.

When considering a base, she said the airline takes into account several economic factors to determine the number of weekly flights it can support and whether that makes the investment worthwhile.

“Grand Rapids kind of hits the sweet spot right now,” Grey said.

Allegiant began operating at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in 2009 and now carries more than 300,000 passengers through Grand Rapids annually.

The Ford airport exceeded 3 million passengers served in 2018, topping its previous annual record before the busy holiday season took place.

Allegiant also was considering building its presence in Ohio, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which awarded Allegiant a $200,000 performance-based grant for the project, with assistance from The Right Place, a Grand Rapids-based economic development organization.

Brian Picardat, interim president and CEO of Ford airport, said Grand Rapids now has nearly 30 nonstop flights. Most other airports of a similar size have about 17, he said.

“So, we're very fortunate, and it has a lot to say about this community,” Picardat said.

Grey said Allegiant already has received a lot of interest from existing crewmembers in transferring to Grand Rapids.

Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place and board member of the airport authority, said her organization continuously reaches out to all airlines — those that already do business in Grand Rapids and those that could be attracted to start —to make sure they know what's happening in the Grand Rapids economy and the airport.

As more companies expand and move into the area, that demand for flights will continue to increase, and vice versa, she said.

“The more nonstops we have out of here, the more this airport will continue to grow,” Klohs said.

Now that the telecommunications company Switch has a campus in Grand Rapids, Grey said there is a lot of business demand for the Allegiant flight to Las Vegas, home to Switch’s headquarters.

“There's a lot that connects us, and having the base here will just help us to connect Grand Rapids with the rest of the country,” she said.

The airline’s operations will be housed in existing vacant cargo facilities at the airport, so no construction is needed now, though Picardat said the airline may be able to build in the future.

He added the airport still is working toward establishing a federal inspection station on-site, needed for commercial international travel. Grey said Allegiant does not offer commercial international travel, only charter, but would look at that option “down the road.”

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