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Wednesday, 06 June 2012 10:12

More seats in the air good news for local biz travelers

Written by  Kym Reinstadler
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WEST MICHIGAN — Business travelers like elbowroom, steamed hand towels and complimentary cocktails, but that's not what's most important.

What matters most is that flights are available when they need to fly, and at good fares.

It was often thumbs down on those counts to West Michigan's largest airport, Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, but things are turning around, according to the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan.

"We're changing the game and closing the gap," said Dick DeVos, who helped found the nonprofit RAAWM in 2009 to increase capacity and decrease fares through competition. "Today, there are more seats in the air and ticket prices are more favorable, when compared to Chicago and Detroit."

He spoke May 8 a Holland Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting.

Commercial air capacity is less today in West Michigan than it was in 2000, but there was a 15 percent uptick from 2009 to 2012. The number of emplaned passengers increased 27 percent during that period, DeVos said.

While capacity is improved at all airports west of Lansing and between Kalamazoo and Traverse City, the greatest increase is at Grand Rapids, DeVos said.

Owing to escalating jet fuel costs, round-trip domestic airfares climbed to record levels nationwide in 2011, jumping 8.3 percent. Fares out of Grand Rapids' Ford International increased an average of 6 percent last year, compared to 7 percent at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, 6 percent at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and 9 percent at Chicago's Midway Airport.

Last year it cost $22 more, on average, to fly out of Grand Rapids than Chicago O'Hare or Detroit, making it an economical alternative, when fuel and parking costs are added to the cost of a ticket.

A survey of the nation's top 100 airports now pegs Grand Rapids as the 17th most expensive airport, down from third in 2008.

"Gentex sales and engineering staff are on a lot of commercial flights," said Bruce Los, senior vice president at the Zeeland-based automotive supplier. "We support the Regional Air Alliance efforts and are feeling the impact of more seats and favorable fares."

Improved air travel benefits suppliers of local industries and enhances the region's ability to attract new businesses, Los said.

Gentex would be seeing greater results from the effort if more of its business travel was domestic, Los said. The cost of international travel is not going down.

The company also flies small aircraft out of Holland's Tulip City Airport for matters requiring rapid response. Nevertheless, most business travelers fly commercial out of Ford International, Los said.

"Air service is an issue that touches large and small companies," said Dan Wiersma, executive director of RAAWM. "No matter what revenues are, it's likely that air travel is going to be a sizable percentage of it."

DeVos said a $5 million investment in the RAAWM has generated about $45 million in savings per year.

He suggested employers share some of their savings by making a $250,000 contribution to RAAWM.

While "success has many parents," DeVos said the greatest factor in bringing fares down, comparatively, at Ford International was increased competition.

The Grand Rapids market had been dominated by a single major airline, which has gone through several mergers and acquisitions. Until recent years, there was little competitive pressure to keep prices low.

RAAWM was able to lure low-cost carrier AirTran, which was recently purchased by Southwest Airlines, a company DeVos said had declined invitations to come to Grand Rapids more than once.

Keeping AirTran, or another low-cost carrier, at Ford International is key to diversifying air travel options and making flying affordable, DeVos said.

By realizing that Ford International, and other West Michigan airports, are convenient and affordable alternatives, passenger volumes will remain at levels that will keep carriers interested, DeVos said.

Airports in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Muskegon have all upgraded amenities in recent years to enhance the travel experience.

"The numbers will help us tell our story about the potential of this market," DeVos told the audience. "We need to speak as the voice of job creators."

Read 1380 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 August 2012 16:03

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