When Brian Ryks decided to relocate from Minnesota to Grand Rapids and take on the the challenges of leading Gerald R. Ford International Airport, he inherited a well-established local commercial airport. That doesn’t mean he’s kicking back and letting the operation run itself. Ryks likes to keep his finger on the pulse of operation, even reviewing the airport police reports on a daily basis. Ryks wants to turn the airport into an efficient, cost-effective airport that serves the entire West Michigan region and can compete with the likes of Detroit Metro and Chicago O’Hare. Ryks sat down with MiBiz to describe how he aims to accomplish this goal.
Upon arriving in Grand Rapids, did you run into any unwelcome surprises with regards to the airport?
Not really. I think coming here I knew the airport was in excellent condition from an infrastructure standpoint. There’s been $312 million dollars worth of upgrades made in the past 12 years. So we were poised to grow from an airline standpoint. There was good air service, but we have opportunities to grow that.
How have you been pursuing those growth opportunities?
We’ve been working with Southwest Airlines. They’re committed to the market. They’re interested, and we hope to see Southwest here sometime in 2013. That will bring a lot of excitement to what we’ve got going on.
How has the makeup of air travel changed in Grand Rapids over the years?
That’s a good question. I’ve actually looked back to five years ago to what we had for air service versus what we have today. Five years ago it was Delta, United, American, Continental, Midwest. They made up the market. What’s happened now is those mainline carriers have actually lost market share. Delta’s down to 42 percent, American’s still out there with 11 percent. United and Continental combined are at 20 percent, and they used to be at 27. This is the key here: Allegient, AirTran and Frontier are taking up 27 percent of our market. So what do we need to do? We need to continue to grow that pie, and that’s where Southwest can help.
What does this diversification mean for consumers?
What I’ve seen in some articles that have come out recently is that airfares have increased nationally, and we’ve obviously been part of that, but our fares have not increased to the extent that the national average has. So I think that’s good and it results in competition, but again our focus is to grow that competition and hopefully make some more progress there.
Where do you see Gerald R. Ford Airport in its goal of becoming a regional facility?
I think we’re closer. I think the fact that the county appointed a board member from outside the county, David Slikkers from Holland, is an excellent step in the right direction because it does need to be recognized as a regional facility. When we look at the region, there’s about 2.7 million people in that, and that number of people can support a strong level of air service and air service competition. I think we need to do more to reach out to the region, and that needs to be a continuous focus.
Who has been the biggest advocate for the airport in West Michigan?
The Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan played a tremendous role. If it were not for them getting AirTran in there when they did, I don’t know what this picture would look like today. I think Allegiant would be here, Frontier would be here, but this AirTran piece would be questionable. If it would have been any later, then Southwest wouldn’t come into the market as well. So, the regional air alliance has played a huge role in that. As an airport director you want a group like that that is engaged, and we need to continue to build on the momentum that’s been established here.
What is the biggest challenge facing the airport moving forward?
People tend to drive to the airports where they can get the best fare, and the more service you have, the better fares you’re going to end up having as well. We feel our competition is Chicago and Detroit, and one of our messages is to think about the cost of driving and parking before you make the decision to purchase airfare out of there.
How can you compete with such large and well-established airports?
The airport can deliver the facilities, and it’s critical for us to establish relationships with the carriers and maintain those relationships, but the bottom line is that it’s the business community that really drives the decisions and that’s where the regional air alliance that Dick DeVos started is critical. It was critical in bringing AirTran in here because they want to hear from the business community, they want to know that the business travelers are going to use their airplanes.