GRAND RAPIDS — Just as Gerald R. Ford International was about to cap a decade of major improvements, it was faced with an unprecedented crisis in U.S. aviation.
The year began with February’s launch of the $32 million east-west runway project, which involved tearing out, regrading and rebuilding most of the nearly two-mile, 150-foot-wide runway, plus replacement and reconfiguration of two taxiways.
Originally, engineers said reconstruction would take two consecutive construction seasons, but John Van Laar, Kent County Board of Aeronautics chairman, recalled that the board said the schedule was unacceptable.
Instead, the board decided on an accelerated construction schedule that saved more than $4 million over traditional funding scenarios and reduced the length of time residents were exposed to noise.
“We got it done in 10 months while keeping the airport fully open,” Van Laar pointed out.
The runway’s completion in November wrapped up 10 years and $250 million worth of improvements set forward in the airport’s 1992 master plan.
“It was an awesome task we were looking at when I was hired here in 1991,” Aeronautics Director James Koslosky recalled.
The culmination of all those major projects, he said, “is a credit to the airport staff, to the consultants and to the community that supported us through the process to accomplish all that.” The runway reconstruction was the last piece of the puzzle.
“We have essentially built a new airport on site by reconstructing our runways, taxiways, terminal facilities and parking facilities,” he said. “It postures this airport to be all it can be for West Michigan for the next 50 years. We’ve got the capacity and we’ve got the infrastructure.”
Because cargo services, passenger services and general aviation services are now segregated in self-contained areas, the airport can deal with security and operational issues and expand its infrastructure to meet demands of those disparate functions while keeping the airport open and operational during construction activities, Koslosky explained.
In addition to the runway reconstruction, in 2001 a committee had been formed to study development of a multi-story parking facility, and landscaping had begun on the stretch of 44th Street from Patterson Avenue to the airport terminal.
“Everything was just really humming. Financially we were in great shape,” Van Laar recalled.
Then Sept. 11 came.
“That really changed airport operations; we got hit with all the FAA security directives. We had no idea what the extra expense would be in security.”
Sept. 11 will forever change the transportation industry, and all modes of transportation will be affected to some degree in regard to security, Koslosky said. “We are in a different world and we probably will be for the foreseeable future.”
Van Laar gives Koslosky and the airport staff “top grades” for their handling of the situation, which began with a four-day shut down and continued through implementation of a series of new safety and security regulations. The outpouring from the community was “incredible,” he added.
“When all those aircraft were ordered to land, we had in the first half hour over 80 phone calls from people and businesses who wanted to help,” Van Laar noted.
Passenger numbers, which began sliding in mid-summer, were down 37 percent in September, primarily due to the shutdown. Passenger activity was off about 21 percent in October and 15 to 20 percent in November.
By the end of December, Koslosky said the airport had fully recovered from the impact of Sept. 11. Though activity levels are still down 15 to 20 percent, he said they’re being driven more by the recession than by Sept. 11. He expects that when the economy comes back, passenger numbers will start moving up again.
The airport could lose about $1 million in net revenues from October 2001 to October 2002. Correspondingly, the airport’s operating costs have increased by about $1.2 million for the same period to cover additional security staff.
The priority now is safety and security — with the focus not only on complying with new FAA security directives but also on retaining the greatest possible level of efficiency and convenience for passengers, Van Laar said.
Koslosky’s hope is that with federalization of airport screening employees, there will be more concentration on adequate training, performance standards and quality control — the things that were lacking before.
One challenge will be the purchase and installation of bomb-detecting machines to screen all checked luggage for explosives, which is required by Dec. 31 under the new aviation and transportation security law.
Though there are no major projects on the immediate horizon, the airport’s work is never done.
As soon as passenger numbers start to go up and it’s feasible again, the airport will restart the parking ramp preliminary design and the landscaping enhancement projects, Van Laar noted.
“The other thing we have to do is get aggressive in airport service marketing and economic development and get some of the direct flights back that we lost. I think those will come back as the airlines respond to passenger loads going up.”