Air alliance pushes G.R. airport

As a better deal

Sentinel editorial board
Posted May 13, 2012 @ 01:36 AM

Airline travel has posed a quandary for Holland area residents for a long time. Do you take advantage of the proximity of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids and accept its historically high fares, or drive to Chicago or Detroit to try to get a non-stop flight or cheaper ticket? Or do you scour websites to try to find a deal flying out of secondary airports such as South Bend or Lansing?

Improving commercial air service out of Grand Rapid has been the goal of the Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan since it was founded in 2008 and, as its chairman, businessman Dick DeVos, told a Holland Area Chamber of Commerce meeting this week, the group has had some successes. The alliance helped bring discount carrier Air Train to Grand Rapids in 2010, putting price pressure on other airlines. Rated the most expensive of the nation’s 100 largest airports in 2008, Grand Rapids now ranks 17th, according to the alliance. The 6 percent increase in the average fare at the airport in 2011 was two percentage points below the national average.

Fighting “leakage” of local travelers to other airports has been one of the strategies used by the alliance to convince airlines to maintain and improve service levels in Grand Rapids, and the organization makes a good case for “flying local.” In the crazy-quilt world of airline pricing, you may well find better fares out of Detroit and Chicago on particular flights but overall there’s not much to be gained from flying out of the big cities. Alliance officials point out that the average fare out of Grand Rapids is only $22 higher than you’ll find at Detroit Metro or O’Hare in Chicago, a difference more than wiped out by driving time and parking fees.

The key factor in the future of air service in West Michigan may lie in the hands of an airline that doesn’t even serve Grand Rapids now — Southwest. The nation’s leading discount carrier is in the process of acquiring Air Tran, and if it continues or beefs up service in Grand Rapids, fares may come down even further relative to other airports; without a major discount carrier, the advances made in recent years could be reversed.

The modern air travel experience isn’t very pleasant, as any regular flier knows. In fact, it’s downright ugly. Fares are highs and tacked-on fees (up to $100 a bag at Spirit Airlines!) make them worse. Planes are cramped and uncomfortable, security screening is a chore and most airline employees seem to be in need of a serious mood adjustment. The one consolation for West Michigan travelers may be that it’s really not any better anywhere else, and there’s little to be gained in most cases from abandoning our “backyard” airport.

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