A new regional air alliance, with The Right Place Inc. at the controls, is taking flight in West Michigan.
Officials said last week the new Regional Air Alliance will continue the efforts started by the Regional Air Alliance West Michigan to improve the quality and pricing of air travel in West Michigan.
Dick DeVos, president and CEO of The Windquest Group, also was honored last week for his leadership of RAAWM and his efforts in landing the “whopper,” low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines.
DeVos was approached more than five years ago to help turn around the Gerald R. Ford International Airport as it faced tremendous passenger losses and increased costs of up to $230 more per ticket than Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports and Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
“From 2000 to 2008, scheduled airline seats to and from the Ford Airport decreased 24 percent, and from 2004 to 2009 passenger numbers declined every year,” said Brian Ryks, GFIA executive director.
DeVos stepped in and helped bring together representatives from 34 area businesses to develop a strategy and lead an aggressive action plan that would change the airport’s course.
RAAWM had its first success in 2009 when it landed low-cost carrier Allegiant Air. In 2010, AirTran, another low-cost carrier, commenced service at Ford Airport.
But the big fish was still out there. The airport and RAAWM wanted to land Southwest Airlines, the largest low-cost carrier in the country, with an expansive route system.
In 2013, after five years of concerted efforts, Southwest touched down on the Ford Airport runway.
“In the fourth quarter of 2013, Southwest’s first full quarter of service, the fares at Ford dropped 6 percent, while Detroit and Chicago saw airfares increase by 3.1 and 4 percent, respectively,” Ryks reported. “Airfares are now competitive. The Department of Transportation’s fourth quarter 2013 airfare statistics show Ford International Airport average fares (are) only $9 more than Detroit and only $24 more than Chicago O’Hare.”
Ryks said it no longer makes financial sense for someone to drive to Detroit or Chicago to catch a flight.
“Consumers have saved more than $287 million over the past four years as the result of reduced airfares,” he said. “Consumer airfare savings of more than $75 million annually are the result of a more competitive environment.”
Also, passenger numbers have increased 7 percent each month since Southwest began service.
Ryks said today, 30 percent of the airline seats at Ford are low-cost carrier seats.
The attraction of low-cost carriers also is impacting network carriers.
“Our network carriers are also responding by adding more seats and more destinations,” Ryks said. “Last month, American Airlines added new nonstop service to Charlotte and Philadelphia starting in September, and I’m happy to report today that we just heard Delta will be adding a fourth daily nonstop flight to Atlanta starting in October.”
Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place, wants to make sure the airport continues down the right path, and that is why she said The Right Place has agreed to lead the newly launched Regional Air Alliance.
“The airport truly is one of our most important assets when it comes to economic development,” she said. “It is always at the top of the list — where you go, how many nonstop flights, etc.”
The new Regional Air Alliance is made up of more than 20 board members representing the West Michigan region.
“We had our first meeting this morning of the new Regional Air Alliance,” Klohs said Wednesday. “We will continue the work of RAAWM in terms of continued look at improved air service, making sure the airlines we have stay, making sure those airlines continue to improve and maybe increase their service, increasing passenger hospitality amenities. Basically, we are taking what has been started and continuing on the journey.”
Klohs pointed out several improvements underway at the airport, including a remodel of Concourse B set to be completed in October, the consolidation of the security checkpoints, and enhanced retail and food and beverage options.
“The effort of RAAWM improved not just the service and the cost, but also the hospitality experience you have at our airport,” Klohs said.
Another step facing the airport is a possible conversion from an enterprise fund operated by the county to a regional airport authority. A governance committee, led by David Slikkers, also a member of the Kent County Aeronautics Board, recommended the change earlier this month.
“The recommendation of the governance committee is to move forward in making the transition from county governance to airport authority governance,” Slikkers said.
That recommendation received the backing of DeVos.
“I do want to commend the leadership of Roger Morgan (GFIA board chair) and the board. There are some steps being undertaken to expand the board or consider expanding the Ford Airport into a regional authority, which will better reflect and serve the region.
“I want to publicly fully endorse that idea. We are now a regional facility. We are a West Michigan region in new ways each and every day, and having this air service represent and be better connected with the entire region makes sense. I commend the board for considering it and I hope that is the next step going forward as a tactical step.”
Regional Air Alliance members
Dick DeVos, honorary chair, president and CEO, The Windquest Group
Laurie Beard, president and CEO, Founders Bank & Trust
Richard Breon, president and CEO, Spectrum Health
Brian Cloyd, vice president of global relations, Steelcase Inc.
Kathy Crosby, president and CEO, Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids
Sandi Doctor, vice president, Northwood Group
Dennis Eidson, president and CEO, SpartanNash
Meg Goebel, president, Paul Goebel Group Inc.
Don Grimes, senior vice president and CFO, Wolverine Worldwide
Brian Harris, president and CEO, H&H Metal Source
Birgit Klohs, president and CEO, The Right Place Inc.
Maurizio LaFranca, aviation manager, Perrigo
Bruce Los, vice president of human resources, Gentex Corp.
John Mooney, vice president of global finance, Haworth
Mark Murray, co-CEO, Meijer Inc.
Jeff Padnos, president, Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co.
Bill Payne, chief of staff, office of chief executive, Amway
Curt Pullen, executive vice president and president, Herman Miller North America and Herman Miller Inc.
Marsha Rappley, dean, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University
Roger Spoelman, president and CEO, Mercy Health
Michelle VanDyke, regional president, Fifth Third Bank
Sean Welsh, regional president, The PNC Financial Services Group