By Kathy Gibbons
TRAVERSE CITY — Passenger numbers at Cherry Capital Airport rose for the third quarter, a sign that airport Director Kevin Klein points to as "very positive."
"A lot of airports across the state of Michigan — Flint, Grand Rapids — are seeing negative passengers," he said. "What I think the difference is, because our area is more of a destination — we are the Pure Michigan destination — we're seeing a lot of that traffic.
"Also, our economy is improving. We're one of the bright spots of the state."
Klein said 32,020 passengers who took flights in and out of the airport in September meant an increase of 3.7 percent for the month over one year ago, and "3.1 and some change" year-to-date. It was even better in August, when the airport moved 59,000 travelers, an 8.5 percent increase over August 2011.
"If I was looking at this a year ago, I wouldn't have expected the growth in the third quarter like we saw, I would have expected to be more conservative: the 2-3 percent area," said Klein.
It helped that during the third quarter, Delta Airlines added seasonal service with direct flights to and from Atlanta and upgraded from a 50- to a 74-seat regional jet for service to New York, Klein said. United also added another flight to Chicago during the summer. It all meant about a 2 percent increase in seat capacity.
"We filled more seats, more everything," he said. "And being named America's top spot --- National Geographic named Traverse City one of its Top 10 Summer Trips for 2012 — has only helped get our name out."
Cherry Capital also is finally seeing a resurgence in business travel.
"It's slowly starting to return," he said. "We're slowly starting to see businesses starting to get back and moving around and going on sales calls."
Tom Rockne, who operates Tom Rockne Travel Resources in Traverse City and is a consultant for the airport, said that even as the airlines reduce service and seats in other areas, Cherry Capital is making a good case for them to expand here. Offering flights to Atlanta and Denver beyond high season and expanding service to New York's LaGuardia Airport are on Traverse City's wish list.
"Each of these seemingly small steps when taken together move us further down the road to more seats," Rockne said. "And more seats naturally means more lower fares.
"So every bit of increase in traffic is good."
Fares do continue to be an issue for some travelers. But Klein said the airport has little control over what airlines charge.
"There's a big perception out there that the airport controls the airfares," Klein said. "I say it's like the mall; we're the management and the airlines are our tenants.
"The mall doesn't tell JCPenney what to charge for their jeans. But we sure do market them."