Few industries saw a nearly complete tanking in business like airports did with passenger travel during the early stages of the pandemic. However, Gerald R. Ford International Airport has since rebounded to about 80 percent of pre-pandemic travelers, and officials continue to pursue an aggressive capital investment strategy in the years ahead. Airport President and CEO Tory Richardson says overall he remains optimistic about his facility’s role in driving regional economic development.
How has passenger travel rebounded since we talked earlier this year when leisure travel was making the most gains but business travel still lagged?
It’s still very much the same in terms of the leisure passenger. That’s predominately what we’re seeing. Anecdotally, we are seeing more business people in the facility, but by and large it’s predominantly leisure traffic, and we expect that to continue in 2022.
Having said that, our numbers are very strong and robust. We’re back to about 80 to 82 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and that’s without that large chunk of business travel. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds in 2022.
Are you concerned about business travel never coming back to where we once saw it?
I’m not too concerned about it, but I do think technology will play a role in businesses’ ability to do remote work and potentially meet with teams and remote clients. But it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to establish new relationships over the internet, Zoom or Teams. I think we’ll see business travel come back, but not to what it was two years ago. We’re extremely pleased with the recovery we’ve seen so far.
What are the airport’s capital plans and growth strategies heading into 2022?
With traffic recovering as quickly as it did, the pre-pandemic challenges are staring us in the face again and are needing attention. That includes not enough space in gate areas and not enough space for planes to pull up and use jet bridges. The very first thing we’re jumping back into is the Concourse A expansion and landing project. That’s kicked off, and we have about a two-year window for this project to be completed.
Another is the air traffic control tower relocation project. We were able to complete a siting study, and the next step is to move to a construction project. Now we’re looking at some legislation to be passed that allows funding for these facilities. That might lead to another parking structure and a consolidated rental car facility.
The checked baggage inspection system is another project we’re having design conversations about as we speak. The big question is the federal inspection station. We did phase one earlier this year, but we still probably have $15 million to $20 million to finish that facility when international travel picks up.
The combination of these projects alone are well over $400 million. This is the most aggressive capital program we’ve had in place at the airport.
Where does federal funding stand from previous stimulus programs as well as the infrastructure bill signed into law last month?
(The American Rescue Plan Act, Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriation Act) and the CARES Act were all focused on COVID relief for airports. We’ve received funding under CARES. We know the funding amount under CRRSAA, but we’ve been unable to tap into that as well as ARPA. Both of those programs … need to be appropriated by the Legislature, and we are awaiting action so we can seek reimbursement for the relief we were provided. My understanding is CRRSAA is moving forward now, and by the end of the year we hope they complete ARPA. (Editor’s note: MiBiz interviewed Richardson prior to the Legislature appropriating $168.8 million in ARPA funding for 15 Michigan airports on Dec. 14.)
A little bit. ARPA is close to $16 million for our airport alone. It’s a pretty good chunk of money. The infrastructure bill won’t have a set dollar amount that we get … because it’s an eligibility and competitive process.
What are your top concerns heading into
Our big challenge right now is just the uncertainty. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but it keeps me on my toes. And just making sure we’re getting the service we need from airlines to maintain what our guests need. Some airlines are starting to see some of that demand trailing off. We know the first quarter will be a little soft, but what we’re seeing airlines do now with pulling back capacity is a little concerning. That’ll be determined basically by how bold our travelers are in West Michigan.