Airport Tries New Marketing Moves

    CASCADE — Fall-off in passenger booking coupled with high debt and operating costs, has forced many major airlines to reduce service in selected markets.

    Gerald R. Ford International Airport is working not only to retain existing service but also to attract new airline services to West Michigan.

    “We need to be knocking on doors because an airline’s assets are easily transferable from one airport to another,” said James Koslosky, the airport’s aeronautics director.

    In early December, for the first time in its history, the airport initiated an air service incentive program that offers airlines a six-month waiver on their landing and parking fees.

    The airlines probably won’t flock here just to take advantage of the waiver, Koslosky noted, but it does represent a cost incentive for the already-beleaguered mainline carriers. 

    “More landed aircraft brings down the landing fee for everybody because we’re a cost-based operation,” he explained.

    There are some fairly significant start-up expenses involved in becoming a new airport tenant, said Bruce Schedlbauer, the airport’s marketing and communications manager.

    For instance, a typical airline might initiate two departures a day on a regional jet six days a week, which would cost about $45,000 to $50,000 in landing and apron fees over the first six months. The fees for larger planes that have more departures and more days of operation would run higher, he pointed out.

    On top of the six-month waiver incentive, airport officials initiated a co-op marketing support program in December.

    Under the program, any commercial aeronautical service provider that is a tenant of the airport or plans to initiate service here can be eligible for 50 percent reimbursement — up to a maximum of $15,000 — on the cost of an ad or ad campaign that runs within Ford International’s primary service region of Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties.

    To qualify, Schedlbauer explained that a minimum of 15 percent of any tenant or future tenant’s TV, radio, billboard print ad or combination thereof must contain a direct reference to Ford International and its official logo or slogan.

    The reimbursement applies to the total cost of all scheduled ads in a given campaign.

    The program extends not only to the airlines, but also to cargo carriers and fixed-based operators providing services to the general aviation community.

    Schedlbauer suspects the takers, for the most part, will be the commercial airlines.

    Thus far, a passenger airline and a fixed-base operator have expressed interest in the program but neither has signed a contract, he said.

    “That’s fine. It could take some time for the program to be considered and acted upon by those entities that are eligible,” he added. “It’s a brand-new program for us and for our tenants.”

    The co-op advertising program, in tandem with the six-month waiver in landing and apron fees, could be especially attractive to aeronautical service providers that want to introduce new service to this market and let people know they’ve arrived.

    “The intent of the program is for the airport to become a partner with the tenant in generating awareness of the service, and then, in turn, demand for the service.”

    To be eligible, an advertisement or ad campaign must be submitted to Schedlbauer for advance review and approval. Once the ads run and he receives confirmation that it has, then reimbursement is provided.

    For fiscal 2004, the airport’s marketing and advertising budget was amended to include an additional $35,000 for the co-op program. If the co-op incentive is well received, Schedlbauer said he would seek an increase in the program budget.  

    In January, airport officials also hired Seabury Airline Planning Group, an air service development consultant out of Arlington, Va., to help market Ford International to the airlines.

    “They will provide advice and counsel on air service retention and on attracting new service,” Schedlbauer said. “They’ll help us develop proposals for the airlines.”

    The airport’s one-year, $170,000 contract with Seabury has a couple of annual renewal options.

    He said the contract includes an annual subscription to a Web-based data portal that Department of Aeronautics staff can use to access comprehensive information on airlines and airports, on what’s occurring in the regional and national markets, and about the threats and opportunities that might exist.    

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