Survey Reveals Top 10 Destinations, Transportation Challenges of Area Businesses

The results are in! We know where you want to fly.

Cherry Capital Airport recently surveyed northwest lower Michigan businesses about travelers’ air service development needs. (Thank you to Kent Wood, Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Tom Rockne, Tom Rockne Travel Resources for assisting with gathering this information.)

Air service development programs encompass a variety of strategies based on sharing real data, alerting carriers to trends and bringing carriers into contact with local businesses to share their cost-saving programs. The first goal is maintaining our existing air service; our second is to work with the carriers to improve connecting times, gate locations at hubs and market for additional seats to serve our region.

Commercial air service attracts investment of current and future business to our region. Competition among small communities for air service is intense. Communities and airports cannot control the price of a ticket or the number of flights, but we can market our community to ensure the airlines, like any business, are profitable, and the routes from TVC are positive to the carriers’ bottom line.

Small communities must generate sufficient demand for a carrier to operate a route profitably without being subsidized or financially underwritten. If the market cannot sustain the service without incentives, it will not last over time.

The best influence our local businesses can contribute to air service development is to fly TVC and provide information. Our survey has gathered that information to share with the carriers, which will help the airlines understand our market’s characteristics.

The survey respondents identified the top 10 cities important to our travelers:

ORD – Chicago

LGA – New York

DCA – Washington, D.C.

LAS – Las Vegas

DEN – Denver

ATL – Atlanta

DTW – Detroit

MCO – Orlando

LAX – Los Angeles

MSP – Minneapolis

As compared to actually flown:

ORD – Chicago

LGA – New York

DFW – Dallas

DEN – Denver

MCO – Orlando

LAX – Los Angeles

SFO – San Francisco

MSP – Minneapolis

TPA – Tampa

PHX – Phoenix

While most of the cities are similar between the survey data and actual flown information from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the survey data indicates demand for potential new markets. When looking at non-stop service, TVC does serve five of the top ten cites identified by DOT with non-stop service during the year.  From the survey’s top ten cities TVC serves six of the top cities with non-stop service.  Hub traffic is very important to TVC, as not one of our markets make up more than six percent of our total traffic. Therefore, the ability to connect to numerous destinations via our incumbent airlines’ hubs is critical for TVC travelers.

The seasonal increase in service is directly proportional to our population influx during summer months. The number of passengers in January was 26,304; the number in July was 77,351 – almost three times more passengers. This is reflected in the non-stop flights and seats TVC receives seasonally. A continued goal is to expand the seasonality of more of these types of flights.

We asked northwest lower Michigan businesses: What are the specific air transportation challenges that face your business?

It’s interesting that the most common challenge was about non-stop flights and frequency of flights rather than cost. This is unusual as most communities continue to rank cost of airfare as the number one issue challenging their transportation needs. As recently stated by Airline Weekly, a trade publication, “Are fares really so high? Well, in inflation adjusted terms, they remain near their all-time lows and after (true enough) years of suffering, some smaller airports have more recently seen their air service grow impressively.”

TVC has seen this growth while other airports in Michigan have not. Why? Our economy continues to be driven by business sectors like technology and tourism. We continue to work with the airlines on fare. Fares are directly a factor of capacity and demand. When we see more seats in the market, we see improved air fare options.

We continue to lobby the airlines to use larger equipment with more seats and to focus on a two class or more product offerings. The airport continually assists the airlines with reliability. In 2017, runway 10-28 was expanded and new navigational aids were installed. We are looking forward to the results of those efforts. Cancellation rates continue to be around two percent or less of all flights and diversions are less than 0.5 percent. This is generally consistent with U.S. averages.

Airport service is an area that TVC has influence upon. We asked: What other needs do your business travelers want to see at TVC? We found that many suggest no changes. However, many still want the airport to focus on working with the carriers to improve pricing, reliability and schedules. As this question’s intent was to focus on what an airport could directly provide, we broke out the question to focus on those ideas.

Airport services range from working with tenants such as Cherry Country Café and Gifts to the Transportation Security Administration. Many of the comments focused on food service. We have found many travelers do not know that there is a café restaurant that serves food, beer, wine and much more. Many travelers still believe that there is no food at the airport. There is a similar case with Wi-Fi as many travelers do not know TVC offers free Wi-Fi.

Parking seems to be of interest to everyone but no one common theme was identified. From valet to shuttle service many items were mentioned as possibilities to review. TVC will be increasing the number of available power outlets in the gate area this fall as we install new carpet. Another focus has been on baggage and the timing of bags being delivered to the baggage claim area. We have studied this item at length and have determined that the majority of the time bags are on the carousel within 20 minutes as promised by the airlines. However, at TVC it only takes less than five minutes (actually 1 minute and 30 seconds) to walk to the baggage claim area to wait when compared to most airports at 15 minutes. Many times the perception of a delay is not really the reality of the situation. Many travelers forget how long it takes to unload an airplane.

When a carrier is weighing a decision on what markets to serve, it is very important to understand the volume of overall spending on air service that businesses in the community are making. Specific companies with significant volumes and focused destinations can be very influential. Cherry Capital Airport has been and will continue to facilitate these contacts. Each carrier has a “soft dollar” incentive for businesses similar to individual frequent flyer programs. Contracted fares for a business generally demand more than $750,000. The survey indicated the majority of our companies spend less than $20,000.

People often ask why we don’t get a “low cost” carrier to serve TVC. TVC management meets with virtually all the airlines that serve our nation’s domestic markets at least once if not twice a year. We note the continued unfulfilled seasonal demand for service into TVC and the growing demand of our own businesses and leisure travelers for destinations throughout the year. However, it is truly the community that attracts these airlines by flying TVC. The more you fly TVC, the more service we obtain. With more service comes more seats and lower fares.

It is just that simple – if you want to improve service, you need to use it. Be assured we are listening, sharing every positive development and working to deliver more flying options for you over time.

Kevin Klein, A.A.E,  is director of Cherry Capital Airport.