‘Leisure travel still very strong’ : The latest from Cherry Capital Airport’s Executive Director
The TCBN again catches up with Cherry Capital Airport Executive Director Kevin Klein, who updates readers on the rapidly-changing travel market, what’s coming next at northern Michigan’s airport, and more.
TCBN: We’re witnessing massive volatility in the industry and passenger numbers even globally. Is that the case locally too?
Klein: Yes, that tracks locally. This time of year, winter, is normally the business travel-focused time of year. But we are seeing because of COVID and the variants, plans are changing rapidly, even on a daily basis. You might have a trip tomorrow, but that could change tonight. We’re seeing traffic down about 6-7 percent versus 2019, but in the summer, we were up 15-20 percent over 2019. So we will end the year very likely having a record years in terms of passengers. But yes, the business world just hasn’t really returned completely to travel yet.
TCBN: And what about the leisure travel market?
Klein: That’s a little less volatile. It’s mostly family-focused travel, especially around the holidays, and most of those people keep their plans intact and actually travel. We have fewer flights, but the [passenger] loads [on flights] have still been in the high 80s to 90 [percent full].
TCBN: The labor situation remains another massive issue around the region. How’s it going at the airport? Last time we talked early fall it was bad.
Klein: It’s settled down a little in the fall, but all the airlines are still hiring. Everybody has multiple openings. This summer, they were looking to hire over 50 percent of their staff. For the airport, we have one maintenance opening. We carried as many as six openings going into the spring. Better, but it’s still a concern. Car rental companies haven’t changed at all, though. They remain in drastic need of people.
TCBN: And how’s the stability with the airlines serving Traverse City?
Klein: Pretty consistent. Allegiant is maintaining their published schedule here through May, so a good 6-7 months ahead of time. A few years ago, their Orlando route didn’t carry through the winter, but now it is. The other winter schedules are pretty standard with Delta, American and United. We’re now waiting until after the first of the year, when they will announce their summer schedules. We’ve heard that American might be making some changes to their [New York] LaGuardia flights, so we’ll see. We’re also seeing some really great numbers on newer markets like Philadelphia and others. Our summer 2021 was so outstanding, so we’ll see if there are some new enhancements from the airlines. We’ll hear in the January/February timeframe.
TCBN: And those airlines make no long-term commitments, correct? They can add or subtract anytime?
Klein: No long-term commitments. They basically say, “if you use it, we’ll give it to you.” So that’s the attitude. Las Vegas, for instance, is one of our top markets, and that’s on their [Allegiant’s] list for us, along with Fort Lauderdale, Nashville, Los Angeles. So who knows. Their one message we have been hearing from Allegiant in terms of their growth is that one of the biggest challenges is getting flight simulation time for the crews. These flight simulators are maxed-out 24 hours a day, and they’re competing against all the other carriers for time. But they are definitely looking to grow. Over the next 3-4 years they’ll be taking on 120 new airplanes.
TCBN: Let’s talk about the airport expansion that’s now planned.
Klein: Yes. We submitted our justification for expansion of the terminal to the FAA. The next step is to develop a financial plan and an environmental study, and those will be done in 2022. We will finish the financials in 2022-’23, the design in 2023-’24, and hopefully shovels in the ground in 2025 for the first phase. We will add concourses in phases starting then, depending on financing.
TCBN: Sounds great. Talk about the terminal amenities you have been working on at TVC.
Klein: Yes, Ron and Cindy Lemcool at the cafe have been working with Liquor Control and they will be able to expand service at the cafe out into concourse but still adjacent to their current area. There will be new seating there. They’re also developing new partnership with local providers like Short’s and Traverse City Whiskey. And then an expanded food lineup, with broasted chicken, chicken fingers and fries, and also healthier options with salads. We also updated our fiber this summer to provide the public improved reliability of our free internet service.
TCBN: And overall, you project continued growth at the airport, correct?
Klein: Yes, with leisure travel still very strong. The Boyd Group [our industry consultant] continues to update different airports on their growth, and we are among the top 25 airports in the U.S. in terms of growth. I think we’ll continue to see that demand grow, especially as we see COVID variants go along. We have the outdoor experiences here people want. And as we do grow, we just want to make sure we have responsible growth for our community, not necessarily increasing the number of flights, but the capacity of flights, changing the smaller regional jets to mainline aircraft.