Two northern Michigan airports made some impressive progress into the headwinds of today's airline industry. Both Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City and Blacker Airport in Manistee recently secured new air service.
Manistee picked up daily flights to Midway Airport in Chicago starting in May to replace Frontier Airline's service to Milwaukee that ended in March. Cherry Capital added weekly seasonal service to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport through Delta Airlines.
That's no small feat in today's air service market. Nationally, airlines are slashing flights, consolidating operations and eliminating smaller, regional-trip jets that were an integral part of the service mix at smaller, outstate airports.
Rising jet fuel prices and less competition among a shrinking roster of carriers will only exacerbate the trend. Some industry analysts expect that air travel passengers face a dwindling number of travel options and growing costs to reach their destinations.
So how do northern Michigan communities secure reliable and affordable air service against such a backdrop? It won't be easy. It will take creativity, which Blacker officials displayed when they convinced federal regulators to tweak their Essential Air Service grant regulations to underwrite the new Chicago service.
It was the first time the U.S. Department of Transportation utilized an "alternate" EAS grant program, established in 2004, and local officials worked hard to convince federal officials to spend more than $2 million a year to secure the new service.
It will also take persistence, which the Traverse City business community showed over the past year in convincing Delta Airlines to add service during peak summer travel periods. Delta went to larger aircraft last summer then added Atlanta service this year around seasonal attractions including the National Cherry Festival, Horse Shows by the Bay and the Traverse City Film Festival.
Most important, it will take persuasion. Local travelers need to be convinced it's worth it to fly out of their own backyard. While $4-a-gallon gas is one reason to fly closer to home, most air travelers are savvy shoppers and are still going to drive a few hours to save hundreds of dollars on air fares.
That's why local airports need to market their services to area residents and visitors and lobby air carriers to make fares competitive so they're not leaking potential customers to discount airlines flying out of Detroit or Grand Rapids.
Airlines are moving faster than ever to eliminate low-capacity flights. But they're also quickly shifting resources where demand exists. For northern Michigan airports, residents and visitors to stay on the up side of this delicate balance, the airlines need to offer reasonable local fares and consumers must respond accordingly.