MUSKEGON — While air travel has slowed dramatically all over the country, it seems to have done the opposite in Muskegon.
According to Terry Grevious, manager of the Muskegon airport, the number of seats occupied on Northwest Airlines and United Great Lakes flights in October rose by 47 and 33 percent, respectively, over October 2000. Midwest Express ticket sales remain steady.
Part of the reason for the growth, he believes, has to do with improvement in airfares out of the airport.
“For example,” he said, “travelers can fly (out of Muskegon) to Orlando, Sarasota or Tampa for $99 each way.”
The flights are not direct, but the key thing is that taking the first leg of a trip out of this community airport doesn’t add meaningfully to the cost of getting to the destination.
Likewise, the current fares of flights originating in Muskegon to Phoenix, San Francisco and Seattle, he added, run just under $200, and it’s $68 to fly either to Boston or New York.
So, are such fares the result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?
Indirectly, it seems likely, insofar as the attack has put pressure on all airfares. But in Muskegon, Dianne Hoofman seems to be part of the reason, too.
Hoofman (pronounced Hoffman) is a career travel agent with whom the airport has contracted to watchdog the airlines’ Muskegon fares. And when she spots a new, lower rate on her computer screen, what she does is cajole the airlines into giving the same break to local travelers.
She said it’s her goal to enable local people to get discount fare rates without having to drive to Ford International Airport.
“Grand Rapids is a Class B airport, and we’re a Class C airport,” she explained. “And what happens so often is that when the airlines cut a rate for, say, Northwest or United out of Grand Rapids, they just don’t think about us.”
So it’s her job to get on the horn and schmooze the contacts that she made during 16 years of work as a travel agent.
“And quite often,” she said, “there’s no resistance at all. They just react with an, ‘Oh! Well, sure. OK.’ And that’s it.”
Hoofman says the new fares probably are only one reason that travel from Muskegon has picked up.
Another factor, she believes, is the security delays that Muskegon just doesn’t have.
She pointed to a recent edition of Conde Nast Traveler that quotes Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, as saying, “If ever there was [sic] a time to consider secondary airports as alternatives, now’s the time. You’ll find less onerous processes there and fewer inconveniences.”
And Hoofman said that describes the Muskegon situation perfectly, with one caveat: Leave your leave your car parked in front of the building in violation of FAA requirements, and you get an instant $50 ticket.
“But other than that,” Hoofman said, “it’s a pretty quick process here.
“Travelers out of the big airports are being told to count on delays of 90 minutes to two hours because of security inspections.
“And we have security checks here,” she said, noting the detection equipment, uniformed security people backed up by an armed Army National Guardsman in tailored tiger fatigues.
“But” — she laughed and held out her arms to the concourse’s between-flights emptiness — “we just don’t have long lines and those delays here.
“And look at the parking,” she added. “It’s not as expensive here and the lots just aren’t that big.” And, for now, short-term parking is free.
She also says Northwest Airlines travelers leaving Muskegon early in the morning rarely encounter flight delays since Northwest leaves airliners at Muskegon overnight.
Hoofman grins and speculates that depending upon where he or she lives, a business traveler from Grand Rapids probably could drive the 45 miles to Muskegon airport and board a flight in less time than it normally takes to get through the security process at Ford International.