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Published in Economic Development
Southern Airways Express has started flying a nine-seat Cessna Caravan between Muskegon and Chicago. Southern Airways Express has started flying a nine-seat Cessna Caravan between Muskegon and Chicago. COURTESY PHOTO

Kalamazoo and Muskegon airports gain new airliners, plan for the future

BY Josh Spanninga Friday, November 11, 2022 11:11am

Two smaller West Michigan regional airports have launched new flight offerings that officials hope will attract passengers as the facilities continue to rebound from the pandemic and launch capital projects.

Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport late last month christened its inaugural flight to Orlando, which airport officials said was approximately two-thirds full. 

“It went fantastic,” Airport Director Craig Williams told MiBiz. “We had a good flight that came in early, left on time, and arrived on time in Orlando. That’s always a good thing.”

Serviced by Houston, Texas-based low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines, the route aims to attract vacationers looking for affordable leisure travel options in West Michigan.

“Our competitive advantage largely includes low costs, and that leads to lower fares,” said Travis Christ, Avelo’s head of marketing. “Our mantra is that we inspire travel through low fares and small, convenient airports.”

In addition to low fares, Christ also attributes a large portion of Avelo’s success to adapting to the pilot shortage that is currently plaguing the industry. As travel demand continues to bounce back from the pandemic, major airlines lack enough pilots to meet customer demands. According to a report from the Oliver Wyman consulting firm, the North American pilot shortage is anticipated to reach 8,000 by the end of the year, and is projected to hit nearly 30,000 by 2032 if unaddressed. 

Geoff Murray and Rory Heilakka, partners in Oliver Wyman’s transportation practice, cite a number of trends contributing to the shortage. Fewer candidates are coming from the military because of the increased use of unmanned drones and fewer deployments. Additionally, aging Baby Boomers are retiring, or opted for early retirement during the pandemic when the industry was hit the hardest. 

While the pilot shortage has been disrupting the airline industry as a whole, Avelo has an advantage in attracting pilots to fly their “very desirable” 737 jets, Christ said.

“The pilot shortage in the industry is very real and Kalamazoo has felt that a bit from some of the big airlines,” he said. “We (Avelo) have big jet 737’s, which are very desirable for pilots to fly, including a lot of experienced pilots who took the buyout during the pandemic at the bigger airlines. So you might be 55 at Southwest or Delta when they bought you out, but you can still fly for 10 more years before the FAA mandates that you retire.”

While the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport is committed to retaining its relationship with larger airlines like American and Delta, officials decided to add the Avelo flights to meet customer demand. Airport executives are open to providing more services with smaller airlines if the route option fits.

“We work hard to attract flights to where people want to go, and people in Kalamazoo and Southwest Michigan want flights to Florida,” Williams said. “They think that’s a great place to vacation, so we work hard to make ourselves attractive to those airlines that would serve those markets.”

Muskegon charter flights 

The Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport isn’t the only regional airport in West Michigan to announce recent changes. On Oct. 1, Southern Airways Express LLC began offering flights from Muskegon to Chicago. The U.S. Department of Transportation chose Southern Airways to replace SkyWest, which announced plans to pull its service from Muskegon this past March. The SkyWest contract was part of the federally run Essential Air Service program, which provides subsidies to airlines at smaller airports to ensure more rural communities have access to affordable air travel.

SkyWest’s decision to pull service from Muskegon, as well as 29 other locations, created the need for a replacement airline.

Rick Taig, interim director of Muskegon Airport and director of operations for F3 Airport, which manages the county-owned airport, said Southern Airways Express is operating a nine-seat Cessna Caravan between Muskegon and Chicago. 

SkyWest’s planes previously fit up to 50 passengers and flew one to two times per day. To make up the difference, Southern Airlines operates six flights per day on weekdays and will offer three flights per day on Saturday and Sunday. 

Mark Cestari, chief commercial officer for Southern Airways Express, explained that the average business traveler will benefit greatly from the more frequent smaller flights.

“Our business model is predicated on frequency, so having six flights per day allows a business traveler to go out early in the morning and to come back late at night,” Cestari said. “Also, with the conditions in the big airline world right now, the big airlines are experiencing a lot of delays and cancellations. By having six flights a day, if your major airline flight is delayed getting into Chicago, you don’t have just two chances to get to Chicago, you now have six.”

Taig said passengers are gradually adjusting to the smaller planes.

“It’s been slow to ramp up, but I think we’re kind of seeing similar levels to what SkyWest was seeing when they were flying their (Canadair Regional Jets),” Taig said.

Cestari assures passengers that the Cessna planes have comfortable seating and plenty of storage space for luggage, and notes that all fares in Michigan are currently under $100.

Gearing up for growth 

Taig confirmed that airport activity is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Despite this, the airport still plans renovations such as runway re-marking projects and the relocation of a taxiway. Next year includes plans for even bigger projects, including replacing the terminal roof.

“The current roof, with all the curved glass on the roof, is creating some challenges not only from a leaking standpoint now that it’s 30 years old, but it’s also creating some HVAC challenges because it’s a hot greenhouse in the summertime there, so it costs more to cool the building,” Taig said. “This new design is going to flatten the roof and remove all of those curved arches on the top. It’s going to replace it with a more streamlined flat roof, and still some skylights to let that natural light in.”

Taig also said that the Muskegon Airport is planning the Wings over Muskegon airshow for July 2023, which will include rides on vintage aircraft supplied by the Yankee Air Museum.

“It’ll be 17 years that the show has been on hiatus since the last air fair was held, so we’re getting lots of positive replies and responses for that,” Taig said.

The Kalamazoo/Battle Creek airport has its own share of upcoming projects funded by the federal CARES Act. Williams expects to finish reconstruction on the airport’s entrance road by Thanksgiving and complete a new snow removal equipment facility next year.

While there are no plans yet to add more Avelo flights out of Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, Christ is hopeful that the opportunity might present itself in the future.

“Flights that do well lead to more flights, and these flights are doing well,” Christ said. “The Kalamazoo flights are off to a really good start, so I would not be surprised if you see us add more.”

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