CASCADE TOWNSHIP — Officials at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport have launched a new campaign to ensure travelers’ safety as activity begins to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.
The “Fly Safe. Fly Ford.” campaign announced on July 6 highlights what officials anticipate will be long-term changes at the airport, such as continuous cleaning protocols, limiting contact between travelers and employees, and installing new HVAC equipment to improve indoor air quality.
“The intent is to make sure passengers have a level of confidence in the safety and health of being able to fly with a comfortable travel experience,” said Tory Richardson, president and CEO of the Airport Authority, which oversees the operations. “It’s designed to give them an opportunity to understand what may be different than what they experienced four to five months ago when traveling.”
The campaign comes as passenger travel begins to rebound from the depths of the pandemic in April and May, when about 95 percent of travel was eliminated from Grand Rapids, mirroring trends across the country.
Richardson said it’s been a “slow and steady pace” to get back to a 75-80 percent drop in passenger travel from a year ago.
“A lot of it is predicated on what’s available and what flights airlines are putting back in the market,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, the Grand Rapids airport served 36 nonstop flights, but that’s expected to contract to 22, per the July forecast. The airport now serves about 1,500-2,000 passengers per day, down from 6,000-7,000 daily a year ago.
“The worst part is behind us,” Richardson said. “We hit the bottom, started climbing out and we’re making steady progress on that. Hopefully by the end of this year, we’re about 55 percent of where we were a year ago.”
The passenger travel decline has meant revenue losses and layoffs for both the airport authority and its vendors. Most recently, Swissport disclosed that it had laid off 55 baggage handling employees since April, cuts that are expected to be permanent. The Airport Authority had roughly a dozen employees who took an early retirement on top of staff reductions “across the board,” which helped bring expenses more in line with revenues, Richardson said.
Year to date, the airport has experienced a roughly $12 million revenue loss, including $5 million in April.
“We think June will start to show a little better progress,” he said.
The Grand Rapids airport also saw a slight increase in passengers after Delta and United Airlines received permission to divert flights in Kalamazoo and Lansing to Grand Rapids because of lower demand. The arrangement is expected to be reevaluated in September.
While the airport and airlines are taking extra safety precautions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advises that people shouldn’t travel if they are sick or have been around a sick person within the past two weeks. Some states, particularly in the Northeast U.S., are requiring travelers from 16 states seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to quarantine for 14 days after arriving.
In Grand Rapids, travelers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are told not to enter the facility. The airport asks travelers to wear facemasks in the facility, and social distancing signs are posted throughout. The goal is to have a “seamless and touchless environment,” Richardson said.
Still, the airport can’t entirely control customers’ willingness to travel or when a vaccine is developed. Richardson said these appear to be key factors in whether traffic increases.
“We’re confident this recovery will continue, but it will probably take another year or so until we’re out of it,” Richardson said. “Some of these changes are for good and will be necessary improvements that will stick with our industry going forward.”