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Sunday, 05 July 2015 22:00

New autonomous airport authority could streamline operations in GR

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New autonomous airport authority could streamline operations in GR COURTESY PHOTO

GRAND RAPIDS — A key change in managerial structure could position Gerald R. Ford International Airport for future growth and stronger regional representation.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed unanimous legislation last week that will transfer the airport’s operations to a regionally-managed authority with an autonomous board of directors. While the change could take up to a year to fully implement, once in place, it could further strengthen the airport’s position as a regional hub that serves all of West Michigan, said Brian Ryks, the organization’s executive director.

“An airport authority is an operating model … that has been widely-accepted across the country,” Ryks said. “You have seen more and more city and county airports moving to this model because it allows boards of these airports to provide a singular airport enterprise focus.”

While questions remain about the new structure and the makeup of the board, Ryks said that a transition to a regional authority will make for more streamlined processes and allow the governing body to put more focus on everyday issues that impact the airport.

Currently, Kent County owns the airport, which is operated by the Kent County Department of Aeronautics. Under the proposed authority model — the details of which are still being worked out — the county would still own the airport but all operations would be handled by the new authority.

With the transition, county-run functions at the airport such as human resources and I.T. will shift to the new airport authority, Ryks said.  

The change comes at a time when the airport is investing tens of millions of dollars in capital improvement projects, such as a stormwater runoff system, a consolidated security checkpoint area and additional parking.

“Instead of just a city or a county operating the airport, (a regional authority) reflects the service area of the airport,” Ryks said. “It’s a good operating model because in doing that, it strengthens regional coordination and creates a stronger platform for economic development.”

The switch to an authority model also comes at a time of record-setting ridership in Grand Rapids. On the same day that Snyder signed the bill authorizing the authority, airport officials announced that Kent County had already surpassed 1 million passengers for the year in the month of May, the earliest that the milestone has been reached in the airport’s history.

The push to create an autonomous airport authority dates back to the days of the original Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan. Now disbanded, the Alliance began in 2008 under the leadership of Amway Corp. scion and Windquest Group President and CEO Dick DeVos. The advocacy group had stated goals of reducing air fares, enhancing the passenger experience and improving the airport’s operations and financial performance.

In seeking to bring a low-cost carrier to the area, the Alliance also succeeded in luring AirTran to the market in 2010. The carrier was eventually acquired by Southwest Airlines, which began offering daily flights from Grand Rapids in 2013.

While the Alliance wound down its operations, some of the group’s advocacy work has been picked up by The Right Place Inc., a Grand Rapids-based economic development group. Both the Regional Air Alliance consortium and the board of directors at The Right Place supported the creation of a regional authority to govern the airport, said Right Place President and CEO Birgit Klohs, who serves on the Department of Aeronautics board.

“It would allow for more regional representation under the airport board, and the authority would be responsible for the management of the airport,” Klohs said.

The Right Place’s current involvement at the airport spans a handful of areas, Klohs said. She pointed to the growing number of companies in the West Michigan region — including her own — that now do business internationally. Ensuring those organizations have a modern and convenient airport that can connect to major hubs must remain a priority, she said.

That’s why her organization took on the Regional Air Alliance’s advocacy function.

“What the Alliance is doing is supporting the airport in its efforts to make sure those (capital improvements) can happen,” she said.

The large investments in infrastructure and facilities at the Grand Rapids airport, as well as its status as the dominant airport in the region, should be good news for economic developers who say that the amenities and passenger experience at an airport play a crucial role in projecting an image of the community to first-time visitors.

However, making Grand Rapids more of a regional hub is not intended to take away from the other smaller facilities around the area, Ryks said.

“We’re moving in really a nice, positive direction,” Ryks said. “(With) these projects — the checkpoint and the concourse remodeling — we will have an airport that is really updated and really reflects our region. When people arrive on a flight, if they have never been to West Michigan, they will get a sense when they step off that aircraft of what the community is all about. That’s important that we reflect that in our airport facilities.” 

SIDEBAR: A ‘catalyst’ for Muskegon

MUSKEGON — While serving far fewer passengers and airplanes than its Grand Rapids counterpart, Muskegon County Airport also plays a role in its community’s economic health.

That’s according to airport manager Marty Piette, who says the facility offers the amenities of a “boutique airport,” wherein everything is closer together and there is little reason for passengers to have to show up any more than an hour before their flight time.

“I would call (the airport) a catalyst for economic development,” Piette said. “When you don’t have an airport, it makes it a little more of a challenge to attract and retain business to your community. It’s more than just flying to Chicago or San Francisco. It’s being able to get those other aircraft in and out of here.”

While the vast majority of the airport’s traffic comes from general aviation such as cargo planes and private jets, United Airlines (through SkyWest Airlines) offers two daily flights from Muskegon to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Because the airport has worked closely with United to try to be competitive with pricing offered in the region, there has been little “fare disparity” between Muskegon and Grand Rapids since January, Piette said.

Karen May, a spokesperson for the airline, said that United does not discuss its fare strategy.

— Reported by Nick Manes

Read 4214 times Last modified on Sunday, 05 July 2015 22:36

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