‘We’re Headed Back’: Cherry Capital Airport’s Kevin Klein on the latest at TVC

Cherry Capital Airport’s Kevin Klein checked in recently with the TCBN for an update on airport traffic, what’s to come for the industry, and which flights in and out of Traverse City are popular — and which are at risk.

TCBN: Well, we’re months into this now. What’s the latest at TVC?

Klein: From a COVID perspective, right now we’re at a point where we’re looking at passenger numbers and comparing them to national figures, which are about 71% down versus last year, while we’re averaging about 61% down. So we’re ahead at the moment and that’s a good sign that we’re seeing some travel interest. Now we’re looking at advance bookings for later this fall, and with some hotspot areas having higher (virus) numbers again, we’re seeing bookings slowing down, which is concerning for fall traffic. We were happy that for the end of summer, we saw Minneapolis come back in August and also Denver. Really happy we got those two cities back into the mix. They’ve been very helpful. Having more seats in market helps everyone.

TCBN: And the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival? Is that traffic strong and helping?

Klein: General aviation traffic has been very busy. We’re only about 30% down in corporate traffic versus last year and it’s rebounding a little faster than airline activity. That’s been one positive here this summer. And yes, the horse shows have been and continue to be very positive for us.

TCBN: What about Interlochen? I know they provide massive international traffic every summer.

Klein: We really feel it because a lot of our traffic increases on weekends were based on Interlochen camp changeovers (when one session ends and another begins). Without having that – an entire summertime with no camps – it’s been major, just major.

TCBN: How are your conversations with the airlines? More frequent? Less? Positive or troubling?

Klein: It’s funny. I was on the phone with one of our airline consultants this morning talking about planning what normally would be our annual fall meetings with all the airlines. Normally (those would be) at conferences together, but those are now in a virtual setting. What’s interesting is we’re talking more now than we typically have; we have more frequent but smaller updates from the airlines. Things have definitely changed in how we communicate. I talk to Allegiant probably the most, always adjusting schedules to benefit the traveler, especially right now. The leisure traveler is coming back faster than the business traveler. However, we’re now coming into September, which has always been a slow leisure travel month. So Allegiant will dial back nationwide in September. In October we see flights going back to a normal schedule. Allegiant’s Florida markets are doing really well and they’re happy, but Phoenix is the one route that is struggling.

Another huge change here is American Airlines, which is now our number-one carrier. That’s been a big market share swing. You could have asked me any of the last 25 years and it would have been Delta or its predecessor Northwest. It’s always been them at the top. We’ve never seen that change and it’s happened so quickly.

TCBN: The American situation is mostly because of their corporate strategy overall, right?

Klein: Correct. It will be interesting to see. To give you an example, we’re down for July about 60%, while American is down only 29%, with Delta down 82% and United down 68%. American is driving the market right now. They chose to say, ‘We want travelers in strong markets’ in places like ours, where people are looking for open spaces to hike or bike, including Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. American engaged that strategy.

TCBN: They’ve also done other things differently, like continuing to sell the middle seats on flights.

Klein: Yes. American has chosen to say, ‘We would rather push face masks’ and also more aircraft cleaning. They were one of the first to hand out wipes. So the airlines just have different philosophies and I think that’s a good thing that everybody’s doing something a little different. If the aviation system as a whole needs future funding, you have two different business models Congress can look at, and you’ll know what it takes to support or put limitations on. It’s just a great exercise to see multiple carriers with very different philosophies. That will prove its value.

And what you’re seeing is the bigger carriers will be okay and the smaller ones will be fine because of the leisure market. What will be interesting is to see what happens to the mid-sized airlines like Jet Blue. Where are they going to end up? You might see more partnerships.

TCBN: What about inside the airport? How’s everything going on that front?

Klein: We’re hearing that both the gift shop and the café are feeling that things are starting to swing to positive. In general aviation, fuel sales are a little more positive. So most of the airport has a feeling of going in the right direction. At the TSA checkpoint, we’re seeing numbers comparable today to what we saw in January or February, but normally we would see four times that amount in July. But it’s moving in the right direction.

TCBN: Do you believe air travel has sort of bottomed out now?

Klein: Even with a second wave, I do believe we’ve bottomed out and we’re headed back. Right now we’re just focused on safety and security, still. A lot of our tenants have approached us for relief and rent abatements and deferments, and I have to say all the tenants have been outstanding to work with. There are different challenges for each of them. I think the airport overall will come out of this more united than ever before. Everyone here is just doing such an outstanding job.