Sun Country Airlines is based in Minneapolis and offers non-stop service to 30 destinations. Courtesy Muskegon Airport
Muskegon Airport received an offer it couldn’t refuse recently: the opportunity to offer a direct charter flight to Laughlin, Nev., for a “too good to be true” price of $270.
“It was something that we’ve never been offered before,” said Dianne Hoofman, marketing director for the airport.
“This is actually done through the Don Laughlin Riverside Resort in Laughlin. They do all the legwork of putting the packages together. That’s the hotel that you stay at. They contract with Sun Country Airlines, who does their air, and they have a transfer company that takes our passengers from the airport to the hotel.”
Hoofman said that the Muskegon Airport used to regularly offer charter flights, but then companies began requiring that the airport pre-pay for the plane, making it responsible if the flight didn’t sell out — in essence, making charter planes an impossibly bad business decision for the airport.
When the resort came knocking, the airport knew it was an offer it could not turn down, and it was right. The first charter flight sold out within three days, prompting the resort to offer a February charter flight, this time for $340. After 10 days, that flight had just 22 of 160 seats remaining.
“The Don Laughlin Resort (does) charters with Sun Country all over the United States. They’ve changed their model a bit recently to go into smaller airports that still have access to a larger market, so Muskegon is perfect,” Hoofman said.
She said she expects that as long as the charter flights continue to sell out, Muskegon will continue to offer them. She thinks there has always been a market for charter flights but especially now because they offer travelers two big benefits: a better price and nonstop flights. The charter flight includes one carry-on and one checked bag in the sale price.
“As far as financial status, it attracts everyone because a lot of times travel is out of someone’s league, but this puts it in someone’s league,” Hoofman said. “I think you are going to see people who don’t usually travel because it’s too expensive get on this. The other thing it attracts is people who don’t like the hassle of travel, because this is so simple.”
The airport benefits financially in a number of ways: airport fees such as landing fees, potentially fuel sales and customer parking fees, as well as diners visiting the airport’s Brownstone Restaurant. But the biggest benefit, she said, is increased attention.
“It allows us to advertise a very good product and to get our name out there. We have United Airlines here, and so many times people just don’t think to check us. They either forget about us completely or they assume the schedule will be bad or the fare will be high. This gets our name out and brings awareness to the airport. Those benefits are endless.”
Besides benefiting the airport, the charter flights also benefit another hard-hit travel industry business: the travel agent.
“This was a really nice offering because the resort paid a 10 percent commission on the full amount to travel agents,” Hoofman said. “I was able to advertise, saying, ‘Please go through your travel agent. You won’t pay a dime more and you’ll get the travel agent treatment,’ which makes travel easy. So it was a win-win for everyone.”
Hoofman said that the airport got on the resort’s radar thanks to airport manager Marty Piette.
“He has been, and is, constantly looking for new business opportunities for the airport,” she said. “Whether it’s trying to bring in a new commercial carrier, trying to get a charter in here — he is always researching, calling, bugging people. That’s his job, to stay on everyone’s radar.”
The best way to stay informed about future charter flight offerings is to join the Muskegon Airport’s e-blast list, or follow the airport on Facebook, the two places Hoofman goes first with any new information.
The airport hopes to continue to offer charter flights as long as the market holds.