It’s no longer routine for several reasons.
First, high parking, gasoline and other travel costs often obliterate the savings off the ticket price of flying from a major metropolitan airport, especially when the employee’s time is compensated.
Second, there’s been a concentrated effort over the last two years to increase air travel options and reduce fares in and out of West Michigan airports.
Spokespersons for Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Muskegon airports report commercial air travel levels were up in 2011, but they say the gains are hard won because of the economic downturn, airline mergers that reduced service throughout the Midwest, and an industry strategy to restrict capacity to assure profitability.
“A lot of work has gone into achieving a balance of low-cost carriers and legacy carriers that can take you anywhere in the world through 15 different hubs,” said Phil Johnson, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
Over the last two years, small carriers Air Tran, Frontier and Allegiant have added service to Grand Rapids, where 60 percent of passengers are on business.
Commercial travel in Grand Rapids jumped 23 percent from 2009 to 2010, and 4 percent in 2011, Johnson said.
Johnson said he was relieved in January when Southwest Airlines — which bought AirTran last spring — announced it would continue Grand Rapids service.
Johnson doesn’t know when Air Tran will become Southwest, or what destinations it will offer, but is encouraged because word it would stick with Grand Rapids came months before it was expected.
Since AirTran added four flights a day to Grand Rapids early in 2011, commercial travel has increased almost 33 percent while air fares have decreased 9 percent, according to the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan, a nonprofit group formed in 2008.
Grand Rapids fares had been among the highest in the country, according to the group, whose chairman is Dick DeVos.
Delta, which merged with Northwest Airlines three years ago, dropped its direct flight to Memphis in January, but still offers 20 arrivals and 20 departures per day.
United Airlines, whose merger with Continental Airlines will be complete in March, has 16 Grand Rapids flights. American Airlines operates nine flights a day.
Air Canada flies twice daily to Toronto. Frontier is dropping service to Milwaukee in mid-April, but will continue to fly to Denver and Washington D.C.’s Reagan National.
Allegiant serves primarily leisure travelers to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Kalamazoo/Battle Creek Airport, which opened a new terminal last April, posted a 9-percent rise in air travel in 2011.
“(The) idea behind the new terminal was never ‘if we build it they will come,’” said Linda Bunting, public relations liaison. “But travelers did want to experience the new facility. Having it is a plus for speaking with other carriers about extending service here.”
Kalamazoo averages 70 flights a week, with Delta flying to Detroit, American Eagle flying to Chicago and Minneapolis, and Direct Air flying to Florida.
High fuel costs coupled with a sluggish economy push against efforts to increase business and leisure travel, Bunting said.
Commercial air travel accounts for only 2 percent of the take-offs and landings at Muskegon Airport, but that sliver of the pie is growing.
The airport looked doomed a couple of years ago when Delta pulled out, and Midwest Connect also dropped its service to Milwaukee.
To avoid closing, Muskegon joined the federal government’s Essential Air Service program, which guarantees a minimal number of flights in communities where commercial flights would not otherwise be profitable.
SkyWest Airlines, operating as United, flies two 50-seat planes to Chicao’s O’Hare Airport daily.
Ridership increased in each of the last six months, owing largely to a $200,000 grant for advertising from the Department of Transportation.
Low fares are helping, too. Sky West currently charges just $82 for the 25-minute flight to Chicago, if booked three days in advance.
“For 35 years Muskegon didn’t need the EAS,” said Marty Piette, the airport manager. “We want to not need it as soon as we can.”
EAS funding is perpetually on Congress’s chopping block, but Piette said he was notified in February that program funding has been extended four years.
“Consistent scheduling since May has helped, but it alienates some business travelers that we don’t have a morning flight,” said Dianne Hoofman, Muskegon’s marketing consultant.
Flights depart at noon and 8 p.m., requiring business travelers to leave a day early and spend the night.
Hoofman said Muskegon has advantages: $4 daily parking across from the terminal, free Wi-Fi, five car rental companies and a full-service restaurant.
Kalamazoo provides free Wi-Fi and a streamlined ticketing and baggage handling system in its new terminal, which is decorated with vintage aircraft loaned from the Air Zoo.
The airport now has boarding bridges for all gates so passengers don’t have to climb stairs from the tarmac.
Grand Rapids has added covered parking, including valet service, and replaced all 13 loading bridges two years ago.
Officials want to consolidate two security checkpoints and make the line move faster.
“Passengers’ biggest concern is getting through security, but there aren’t many concessions once they proceed to the gate,” Johnson said. “We’d like to move the majority of concessions past security, if we could find a way to do it and pay for it.”
Johnson said the number of Grand Rapids travelers fell 7 percent in January, primarily because of reduced capacity.
Airlines used to compete for market share, then realized planes had to be full to turn a profit on a flight, he said.
“It’s in their best interest to limit capacity because it drives up fares and they make some money,” Johnson said.