MUSKEGON — As he prepares for the scheduled departure of jet service after next month, Muskegon County’s airport manager, Marty Piette, is confident of landing a return flight next year in one form or another.
Northwest Airlines’ six-month trial period for jet service between Muskegon County Airport and Detroit ends with the new year and Piette hopes to secure the service again for the busy travel period in 2005, or at least have an additional fourth daily flight with turbo-prop aircraft.
With Northwest Airlines meeting its financial targets for the jet service as of the mid-way point in the pilot project, Piette is optimistic the airport can work out a new arrangement once final performance data is available in mid-February.
The possibilities include Northwest Airlines repeating the same scenario as this year, using a 50-seat jet for one of its three daily round-trip flights between Muskegon and Detroit, or the addition of a fourth flight using a turbo-prop plane.
The worst-case scenario is the elimination of jet service and continuation of only three flights daily. The best-case scenario is the addition of a fourth flight using a jet.
Piette anticipates something in the middle of the two scenarios.
“I think it’s going to do well enough that something will happen. We’ll either get the jet back or a fourth flight” with a turbo-prop, Piette said.
Northwest Airlines agreed in April to use a Canadair Regional Jet for the first morning daily flight to Detroit and the final evening flight to Muskegon beginning in June. The CRJ jets, operated by Northwest Airlink, are larger and offer more amenities — overhead storage bins, a galley, lavatory, and better climate controls — than the Saab turbo-prop aircraft Northwest uses for its other two daily flights.
Northwest Airlines’ decision returned jet service to Muskegon County Airport after an absence of more than 20 years. It came as the airport’s administrators worked to improve air service and increase passenger traffic. The airline returned jet service to Muskegon under the condition that it would continue after the six-month trial only if it met certain financial targets and occupancy rates.
Since then, Piette said, the airline has indicated that its jet service is meeting the requirement and the route is profitable.
While he wants to keep the jet service, which has recorded occupancy rates in the mid- to upper 60 percent range, Piette prefers to see a fourth daily flight added between
A fourth daily flight would provide more options for passengers who use Muskegon County Airport, a large percentage of whom are business travelers, and help to boost passenger traffic, which in turn could lead to future service upgrades by airlines, Piette said.
“I want to get more flights and more seats available,” he said.
“It’s kind of a toss-up between the two. I think frequency is kind of the key so we have more flights and more options.”
Piette anticipates a “pretty cut and dry” negotiation with Northwest Airlines this winter, with the decision coming down to how well the jet service did in 2004.
“We should know what the airline and what the community will support,” he said.
Northwest Airlines is the airport’s largest carrier.
The airline served nearly 41,000 passengers on its three daily flights between Muskegon and Detroit during the 2004 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That’s down 3 percent from the prior fiscal year, although volumes have improved as the economy has improved and more people traveled.
In October, Northwest Airlines’ passenger traffic was up 2 percent over the same month a year earlier, from 4,232 to 4,296 passengers.
Midwest Airlines, which operates six daily flights between Muskegon and Milwaukee, recorded a 24 percent increase in passenger traffic during FY2004, from 11,908 to 14,730 passengers.
Overall passenger traffic for FY2004 grew 2 percent, from 54,212 to 55,207, and up 6 percent during October from the same month a year earlier.