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Published in Economic Development
Grand Rapids airport eyes direct international flights with latest expansion COURTESY RENDERING

Grand Rapids airport eyes direct international flights with latest expansion

BY Wednesday, September 16, 2020 11:20am

GRAND RAPIDS — Gerald R. Ford International Airport officials have announced a new expansion project meant to eventually support nonstop international commercial flights.

The new federal inspection station, or FIS, which would expand U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s ability to screen more international travelers, is expected to cost $30 million and is part of Project Elevate, a long-term effort to accommodate an expected increase in passenger travel. 

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. has supported the project with a $5 million grant.

“Phase I of this project is an important step forward as we work to bring direct international travel to West Michigan,” airport President and CEO Tory Richardson said in a statement. “Creating this additional space will signal to the federal government we are serious about creating an FIS at the Ford Airport while offering us needed additional baggage claim area in the meantime.”

The first phase of the inspection center project is on the east end of the airport terminal and will include a new baggage claim area, restrooms and other infrastructure that will support domestic flights until the full inspection center is completed, which does not yet have a timeline. The architect on the project is Middleton, Wis.-based Mead & Hunt, and Lansing-based The Christman Co. is serving as the general contractor.

Project Elevate was set to launch last spring but faced delays due to the pandemic. In addition to the inspection station, officials plan to expand Concourse A and relocate the air traffic control tower. Project Elevate will be financed with a combination of state and federal grants, user fees and municipal bonds issued by the airport.

The Grand Rapids airport can only process private aircraft on direct international flights because of Customs and Border Protection’s limited ability to screen passengers, which the inspection station aims to resolve. When completed, the inspection station could screen up to 400 passengers per hour.

Project Elevate is a long-term project meant to accommodate the expected growth of passenger travel over the next two decades. Like all other airports, though, passenger travel severely declined in April and May because of widespread shutdowns and travel restrictions because of COVID-19. At its peak, passenger travel had declined about 95 percent during the first month of the pandemic, as MiBiz previously reported.

However, traffic has slowly rebounded since, and Richardson said in July: “The worst part is behind us.”

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