Fight or Flight: Cherry Capital Airport keeps routes alive; anticipates new airport authority

Cherry Capital Airport’s Kevin Klein checked in with the TCBN recently to discuss the recent visit by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, how air travel is recovering, and changes in governance at the airport.

TCBN: You had a very busy end to the election season!

Klein: Yes. And regardless of your party, when you have a visit by the president and the vice president, that’s pretty special. I’d give our team at the airport a 10 out of 10. I’m really proud of them.

TCBN: Sounds like you’re getting very close to a new airport authority governance arrangement at the airport?

Klein: Yes, Grand Traverse County passed this morning the notice of intent to file the articles of incorporation, and part of that is having a public hearing. Dec. 2 is that hearing, and then Leelanau will follow same path and the hearing will be Dec. 8. I expect that between now and then the public can review the articles and ask any questions. I look forward to any new comments, but I feel very confident that we incorporated a lot into that document already.

TCBN: What’s the process after that?

Klein: Once completed, the two county boards will do the official filing of a notice of intent, and that starts the process to file with U.S. Department of State and informs the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of a change of governance. With an FAA fast track it will be about six to eight months, and then a final vote by both counties just making sure all agreements are transferred from the commission to authority. And then we’d do a process similar to a real estate transaction where the FAA comes in and signs off on that change of governance. So around nine months.

TCBN: What is the latest with air travel?

Klein: We’re down about 47%, an improvement from even three months ago and a major improvement from last March. Last year we were about 68-72% down and we’re coming back a little better, so I’m very happy. This winter, with some of the upticks in COVID cases, there have been schedule adjustments, but when you look at airlines’ hub and spoke systems, we’ve maximized our position. One example: American used to fly eight to nine banks of flights at O’Hare and is now flying three banks. We hit every one of those banks with our flights. That says a lot about our market.

Also Harvard University came out with a study that seems to be capturing the eyes of travelers. It’s now safer – with all the air filtration – to travel on an airplane than to go grocery shopping. If all the travelers are following protocols, when you’re sitting next to somebody even inches away, it’s like sitting seven feet apart, and if they’re wearing an N-95 mask, it’s almost 14 feet. Air travel is a safe way to go. It’s now getting consumer confidence back to do it.

TCBN: What’s the latest with the airlines here?

Klein: Allegiant’s Tampa/St. Pete and Sanford routes are full schedule, once a week instead of twice. But that likely would have been that COVID or not. The Phoenix route wraps-up Nov. 11 and will return Feb. 11. It’s just a hiatus for the holidays. The Punta Gorda route starts Dec. 18.

TCBN: I know the Phoenix route just a few months ago was in doubt.

Klein: Right! It’s a holiday hiatus, but I’m just happy it’s coming back. Phoenix wasn’t getting the traffic and we were worried it would get cut altogether, but word got out and the community really rallied to keep this.

In the last week I’ve met with the three legacy carriers – United, American and Delta – just looking at next summer. And that’s our concern – to get on their radar for our peak time of year. We had a really good response from all three carriers.

We have performed really well during COVID. I think American will return with all they had last year and maybe more. United probably the same except Newark might be a little questionable based on the deepening of COVID in New York, and they’re also looking at Houston. Delta is looking at bringing LaGuardia back. With Atlanta, we’ll see how that goes; their concern is staffing. That might take another year before that comes back. Minneapolis is a ‘yes,’ and they will upgrade some aircraft from Detroit. All very good news from those meetings.

TCBN: So the recovery is happening, but it’s going to be slow.

Klein: Right. As an industry, it might be 2023 or 2024 before we return to 2019 levels, but peak summers might be back to normal sooner, so that’s great.

TCBN: I’m guessing it’s a balance for the airlines. They are cutting routes and costs, but when they see a market that’s performing, they want to pounce and have flights and make money.

Klein: You got it. They know our summer market performed well even during COVID times. And we also have the environment people want, with open spaces and outdoor activities.

TCBN: And what is the split right now in terms of leisure versus business travel?

Klein: It’s probably 90% leisure right now. Normally it would be 60/40. And with business travel, we’re seeing a lot more day trips, with travelers trying to get out on the first flight and back on the last, on the same day.

TCBN: What’s new at the airport?

Klein: We’re currently working on adding a new jet bridge. We have four and will have five. That’s going well. We’ve done the interior and look forward to getting the jet bridge first of the year, have final installation and have it usable by March. That one will be mainly used by Allegiant so they won’t have to share, but if another carrier needed an extra bridge, the new one could be usable for both gates. And at gates 1 and 3, we made some adjustments so they can bring in dual operations on the gates with bigger jets. Before they only handled one aircraft and now they can handle two. So, more progress.