MUSKEGON — A new travel-friendly schedule at Muskegon County Airport continues to attract new business and leisure travelers, leading to higher overall passenger numbers.
Recent spring break travel filled up many flights, and airport officials are even more optimistic as the region gears up for summer travel season. The “early out and later in” schedule that began in October expanded opportunities for people to fly to domestic and international destinations served by United Express, a regional brand of United Airlines.
SkyWest Airlines, operating as United Express, provides two round-trip direct flights daily to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. For business travelers, the benefits of the new schedule include arriving in Chicago around 6 a.m.
In December, the airport saw a 38-percent uptick in passengers compared to the previous year. That trend continued in the first three months of 2019, with “very healthy increases” and a passenger load factor near 50 percent for March, according to Airport Manager Jeffrey Tripp.
“There are so many people who live right by here,” Tripp said. “The basic message we have is support your local airport.”
With the new schedule this winter, the Muskegon airport saw increases in leisure travel to destinations including Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Jamaica, Tripp said. The new schedule allows for early morning and afternoon departures and afternoon and late evening arrivals, making it convenient for both business travelers and vacationers who need to make connecting flights.
“Getting the right schedule is huge,” Tripp said. “The new schedule really opens up your ability to connect in Chicago. … The later flight really opens up the ability to come back.”
Executives at the Muskegon airport are realistic about the market reach of nearby Gerald R. Ford International Airport, which closed out 2018 with a fifth straight year of record-setting passenger numbers. About 3.26 million passengers flew in and out of the Grand Rapids airport in 2018, up from the 2.8 million record set in 2017.
But airport officials encourage lakeshore residents to “check Muskegon first.”
“The West Michigan shoreline region has two quality airports providing air service options for business and leisure travelers,” Tripp said. “In looking at the continued record-setting growth the Gerald R. Ford Airport is experiencing, it shows the demand for air service in the region is only increasing. … Sometimes MKG is the best option; other times GRR is.”
Having direct flights to Chicago available from Muskegon connects the region to the world and adds to the lakeshore’s economic vitality and ability to attract companies, according to area business leaders.
“Time is money in business dealings,” said Cindy Larsen, president of Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. “Having access to air travel is critical for business development. Years ago, an international business traveler said to me, ‘It’s easy to get to Muskegon from Germany.’ That statement made a lasting impression in my mind about the importance of business air travel.”
Federal funding through the Essential Air Service program helps subsidize United for service to Chicago and keeps the airline flying in and out of Muskegon County. Without those funds and enough passenger activity, the service could be in jeopardy.
“If the region’s passengers want to keep this new schedule, and hopefully add additional flights in the future, we need to maximize the passenger loads to justify keeping the current schedule or risk losing it,” Tripp said.
Owned and operated by Muskegon County, the airport also is scheduled to rehabilitate the main runway and complete runway lighting upgrades this summer. The county received capital improvement program grants from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Michigan Department of Transportation to fund the project.
The total cost is $5.45 million, with the FAA covering $5.14 million, MDOT paying $135,378, and the county footing $157,616. Airline service will not be affected during the project, which is part of the airport’s overall pavement preservation program to extend the life of the runway before a more costly reconstruction is needed, Tripp said.
Muskegon airport’s primary market is along the lakeshore from Ludington to Grand Haven, but it is starting to see more customers from Holland, Tripp said. The intent is to boost passenger activity so the airport doesn’t need the Essential Air Service subsidy and make it a self-sustaining operation.
“The goal is to run it as much like a business as a government entity can,” he said.
Ticket prices are competitive and travelers can be in many destinations before noon, according to Tripp, who noted flying out of Muskegon often means shorter commutes and convenient parking just steps away from the terminal.
Travelers can arrive 75 minutes in advance, not two hours, and receive more personalized service with shorter check-in and security lines. The Muskegon SkyWest operation also earned the 2017 United Airlines Quality First Award.
The option of a late evening return flight reduces the need for an additional day’s travel, lodging, waiting around in the airport and other costs, Tripp said. That means that after a long vacation, passengers can get off the plane, through baggage claim and make the drive home much quicker.
“When you factor in your gas, time and parking, are you really saving money?” he said, referring to driving to Grand Rapids.
The Muskegon County Airport offers a full range of general and commercial aviation services and sees busier flights during the summer months. Many people fly in for events such as Electric Forest, which provides a shuttle to and from the airport, Michigan Irish Music Festival and Grand Haven’s U.S. Coast Guard Festival.
Popular casino packages and charter flights also fly to Laughlin, Nev. and Atlantic City, N.J. Another trip is planned June 14-18 to Biloxi, Miss.