Officials scramble to address high airfare

Officials scramble to address high airfare

By Bill O’Brien bobrien@record-eagle.com The Record Eagle

Sun Oct 17, 2010, 07:54 AM EDT

TRAVERSE CITY — Cherry Capital Airport officials hope financial incentives will attract more air service to northwest Michigan, an effort by the airport to respond to a flood of complaints over high airfares and poor local connections.

An incentive plan could save airlines hundreds of thousands in airport fees to bring new flights to Traverse City. Meanwhile, area business have increased pressure on airlines to lower fares and improve connection times at Cherry Capital.

“Traverse City has a beautiful airport, but people need to fly in here at a reasonable price,” said Donald Ponniah, president and general manager at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme.

Complaints intensified since Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest and took over as Cherry Capital’s primary air service provider. Doug Luciani, president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber received a flood of negative responses when it recently sought community feedback on the region’s air service.

“It seemed like there was a lot of pent-up frustration over this issue,” said Luciani, who contends the airline’s relationship with the community soured in the two years since the merger.

“Northwest had a connection with the community,” he said. “That connection doesn’t seem to be as strong since the merger.”

Luciani said Delta agreed to send representatives to Traverse City this fall to discuss the community’s complaints. Delta did not respond to a Record-Eagle reporter’s request for comment.

Airport officials acknowledged a reduction in flight options as airlines trim flights and reduce seat capacity — both locally and across the country — to improve their bottom lines.

Flight data from Cherry Capital shows the number of outbound seats for this summer’s travel season dropped 20 percent since 2008. The airport had just over 120,000 outbound seats available this year from May through August, compared with nearly 151,000 two years ago. Those figures include Delta, United and American airline flights.

Ponniah said the resort and other northern Michigan destinations regularly lose business because convention groups balk at Traverse City’s pricey air fares. The resort recently lost out on a 30-plus person business group from Phoenix due to travel costs between Traverse City and Chicago, he said.

It’s become a too-familiar scenario, Ponniah said, as companies and meeting planners look to cut costs amid a struggling economy.

The resort may offer travel vouchers to business and convention groups to reduce travel expenses, he said. And it’s hiring a consultant to work with local carriers to address fares and connection options.

“I’m losing business because of the airlines,” Ponniah said. “I need some help. The community needs some help.”

Ponniah is not alone. Filmmaker Michael Moore, founder of the Traverse City Film Festival, said high airfares top the list of complaints from out-of-state travelers who attend the annual event. Moore’s wife, Kathleen Glynnn, launched a Facebook page to protest Traverse City’s high airfares, and the site now counts more than 150 members.

Airport officials are well aware of the community’s discontent. They’re quick to say Cherry Capital has no control over fares or flight schedules, but the airport could cut operating costs to boost competition and create more flight options.

“We’re trying to attack this from a different component,” said Larry Inman, vice chairman of the Northwestern Regional Airport Commission and a Grand Traverse County commissioner.

The airport’s new marketing plan would waive various airport fees for one year for new airlines offering commercial flights through Cherry Capital, or for additional flights to a new destination from an existing carrier.

Those landing fees, apron fees, rental and other costs potentially could save an air carrier up to $500,000, airport executive director Stephen Cassens said.

The airport also would offer cash to promote the new service and assist with terminal improvements, if necessary. The airport banked a $470,000 federal grant it hoped to use to expand flight service to Denver, but carriers thus far have ignored that offer.

Cassens said that money could be shifted to other purposes, if federal officials agree.

“We’ve actually walked it around to a couple different carriers,” Cassens said of the new incentive plan. “We’re trying. We’ve been pro-active in trying to do something to improve capacity.”

Inman said the airport hopes to attract a mid-level carrier like Midwest or Frontier Airlines to compete with major airlines.

“Competition from those folks drives those prices down for airlines like Delta and United,” he said.

Scores of travelers routinely drive to southern Michigan airports to save on fares, and Cherry Capital last year gained unwanted national notoriety when Forbes.com ranked it near the top in a list of “America’s Rip-Off Airports.”

Forbes used federal travel data from 2008 to determine an average fare per mile of 41 cents at Cherry Capital, second-worst in the country.

The local chamber received about 400 letters from people upset about service and costs, and those complaints are being forwarded to U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Dave Camp, Luciani said.

Lawmakers may ask the Federal Aviation Administration to look into the airlines’ pricing, Luciani said.

Cassens said it will take time to attract more air service to Traverse City, since airlines do extensive schedule planning and typically don’t expand service in the off-season. That means new service isn’t likely until next summer.

“It takes a long time for things like that to work,” he said.

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