Forecasts show steady passenger growth at Gerald R. Ford International Airport averaging 3.5% annually through 2040, underscoring the need for the expansion. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford International Airport
Through a new three-phase development project, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport is preparing for continued growth of service and operations.
Project Elevate will enable the Ford airport to serve thousands more passengers, book additional destinations with greater ease and potentially serve as a base for another airline, according to Brian Picardat, interim president and CEO of the airport.
GRR has experienced double-digit passenger growth for the past 19 months, posting an increase of 16% to more than 3.26 million passengers for 2018. Forecasts show steady passenger growth averaging 3.5% annually through 2040, underscoring the need for the expansion, the airport said.
Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place and Ford airport board member, said Grand Rapids needs to have a world-class airport as the front gate to the region, whether for retaining and growing local businesses or attracting new companies and talent.
“The success of the airport is critical to economic development in our region,” Klohs said. “The growth of West Michigan and the airport are inextricably linked.”
The first phase of Project Elevate is a $90 million expansion of Concourse A: the addition of eight gates and amenities, such as restaurants and stores. Concourse A currently has seven gates, and Concourse B has eight gates.
The project will widen the 66-foot concourse to 120 feet and lengthen it by 510 feet, to a total of more than 900 feet.
Each night, about 20-22 aircraft park overnight, and the morning flight launch is the busiest time of day, Picardat said.
As a base for Allegiant Airlines, GRR now has more aircraft that park overnight in Grand Rapids than it has gates. This means that planes must wait on the apron for a spot at a gate while other planes load passengers.
“So, we're trying to help accommodate the needs of the airlines as well as our passengers,” Picardat said. “From the passenger standpoint, it should ease how quickly the airlines are able to load them and get them out.”
Once there are enough gates to support operations, Picardat said that could spark interest for another airline that may want to base plans in Grand Rapids.
Construction is set to begin next spring and finish in 2022.
The expansion of Concourse A is expected to create more than 125 construction jobs and more than 300 permanent positions.
Dan Koorndyk, Ford airport authority board chair, said support from U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga and Michigan Sen. Peter MacGregor has been “instrumental” in securing initial funding. Koorndyk said Dick DeVos has advocated for the project at the federal level, and The Right Place has done so at the state level.
Project Elevate will be paid for with a combination of federal and state grants, municipal bonds issued by the airport and user fees.
Expansion of the terminal apron to support the concourse expansion already is underway, paid for with more than $14.4 million in federal and state commitments from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The next phase is to create a $24 million federal inspection station capable of screening international commercial flights, as the Business Journal previously reported.
Airport leadership currently is seeking federal approval for the station.
Currently, when a private aircraft lands at GRR from an international airport, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents meet and screen passengers at the aircraft. Without dedicated screening facilities, this limits their screening capacity to small aircraft only.
The addition of the station will provide a permanent home at the airport for customs officers, allowing CBP to consolidate multiple locations into a single facility.
GRR will place the FIS on the east end of the terminal, building a corridor from Concourse B that would lead to a dedicated customs area complete with screening equipment, security, holding cells and other FIS requirements.
Work on the second phase is slated to begin next spring and will include improvements to the curb front and the addition of a new baggage claim device.
If all goes as planned — fundraising, construction and the hiring of customs officers — Picardat said he expects at least another 18-24 months before the airport can host commercial international flights.
With support from MacGregor, former Michigan Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, former Michigan Rep. Chris Afendoulis and The Right Place, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation granted $5 million for the project.
The third phase of Project Elevate will move the air traffic control tower from its current location atop the airport terminal to the east side of the airfield, the Business Journal previously reported. This will make way for diverse terminal-area developments, such as additional tenant hangars and more parking, among others.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires that air traffic controllers must be able to see the entire airfield they control. The current placement of GRR’s tower limits the ability of the airport to expand the terminal complex out or up, hampering construction of facilities and parking.
Part of the third and fourth floors of a parking structure is uncovered for this reason, Picardat said.
The current air traffic control tower opened in 1963 and is the second oldest tower in the top 100 airports across the country. GRR has been on the FAA’s tower replacement list for over a decade, placed there at a time where eight or nine new projects started each year. Today, the FAA begins construction on only one or two new towers annually.
“The airport is the first impression many people see when they arrive in West Michigan and the last view they will remember as they leave,” Koorndyk said. “Project Elevate will change the skyline of the airport. It sets the stage for not only the airport’s growth but our region’s as a whole.”
Project Elevate represents continued implementation of GRR’s master plan, which reviewed past and projected passenger growth along with infrastructure shortfalls before developing a plan to accommodate that growth and “connect GRR to the world,” according to Koorndyk.
In addition to roadways and gates, the master plan anticipates the additional facilities and airfield infrastructure needed to meet growing demand for air travel.
Project Elevate will build on the $47 million Gateway Transformation project, which began in 2014 and will wrap up spring 2020.
The project raised more than $17 million from the business and philanthropic communities in West Michigan to support a complete remodel of the terminal.
The first phase created a centralized security checkpoint, a new post-security marketplace featuring the Prospect Hill restaurant, Starbucks and A Touch of Grand Rapids store, as well as pre- and post-security nursing rooms, three new post-security business centers, a refreshed pre-security business center and the new President Gerald R. Ford Tribute room in the Grand Hall.
The second phase, currently underway, “finishes the facelift” and focuses on ticketing, baggage screening, baggage claim and other front-of-house areas.
A key feature of the second phase includes relocating TSA baggage screening equipment from the airline queuing areas and adding restrooms, dining and beverage options near the baggage claim.
Alex Peric, Ford airport COO, said the Gateway Transformation project allowed the airport to fix some pre-9/11 infrastructure but did little to address challenges related to growth.
“Project Elevate builds on the progress we have made and allows us to address capacity constraints,” Peric said.