Published in Economic Development
Grand Rapids airport expects traffic rebound could be months away COURTESY PHOTO

Grand Rapids airport expects traffic rebound could be months away

BY Monday, April 20, 2020 04:44pm

The Gerald R. Ford International Airport was on pace for a record March before the coronavirus made operations “essentially evaporate,” and airport officials don’t expect a rebound for at least three months.

Passenger travel through the Grand Rapids airport is down about 95 percent since mid March, which is roughly proportionate to the airport’s revenue loss, said Tory Richardson, president and CEO of the Airport Authority, which operates the airport. In April 2019, the airport brought in just less than $5 million in revenue. This month, the airport expects about $500,000.

“We went from record-breaking highs to record-breaking lows,” Richardson told MiBiz. “Our business is operating at just a fraction of what you’d normally expect.”

The airport gets roughly 75 percent of its revenue from parking fees and passenger airlines for terminal rent and landing fees. As the largest source of airport revenue, parking fees have been virtually non-existent over the past six weeks, Richardson said. Meanwhile, the stock of rental cars in the parking garage has overflowed into surface lots.

The coronavirus-related slowdown follows years of steady growth for the Grand Rapids airport. The airport’s 2018 total revenue was $49.2 million, a 17.6 percent increase from 2017 primarily because of increased passenger traffic, according to a May 2019 budget report.

However, the airport remains open for essential travel and for steady streams of health care equipment arriving by both passenger and cargo planes. Flights are still being scheduled, although most are canceled by the day of departure. Typically, the Grand Rapids airport sees 12,000 to 14,000 passengers a day. On Monday, it might see 300, Richardson said.

“It’s a much different operating environment now,” he said.

Airport officials saw some relief in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package, which awarded U.S. airports $10 billion to make up for lost revenue. Grand Rapids received $16.2 million — the fifth most among Michigan airports. Richardson said the funding criteria was based on a number of factors, including passengers, debt service and cash reserves. By comparison, Detroit Metropolitan Airport received $141.8 million, and Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport got $19.1 million.

Richardson said the federal funding will help cover expenses for the next six months, but the airport is prepared to “make notifications this week about the need to do some layoffs.”

“We’ll have to do some reduction of our staffing to match the existing business climate we’re operating in today,” he said.

It also remains unclear when operations will return to normal. Based on airlines’ bookings, Richardson said it will be at least three months.

“Right now everyone is sort of in a wait and see mode,” he said.

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