For years, those who fly in and out of Cherry Capital Airport have been complaining about high air fares. Even the chamber of commerce has raised a ruckus on behalf of its member businesses, which often pay sky-high rates when they need to get to a distant business opportunity in a hurry.
One of the reasons for high fares, according to the various airlines that have flown in and out of Cherry Capital over the years, is that it has always been hard for them to fly larger jets - which can carry more passengers and thus reduce per-seat costs - in and out of Traverse City.
Often (particularly in the colder months) there aren’t enough bodies to justify using a bigger jet or, when there are - such as in the busy summer months - the airport’s relatively short main runway isn’t big enough to allow fully-loaded planes to get airborne.
Oddly, given our often-harsh winters here, it’s summer - just when airlines can usually fill all the seats they can get and want to carry full passenger loads - that is the problem. The warmer, lighter air of summer provides less lift for the jets so they need more runway, and airlines currently compensate by carrying up to 14 fewer passengers.
That may not sound like a lot on a jet with more than 100 seats, but at $350 or $400 a passenger, giving up 14 tickets per flight can quickly add up to significant lost revenue.
What has made the problem more difficult is that the airport, which was established just a few miles out of town at a time when giant jetliners were just a dream, is essentially landlocked, making an extension difficult. Wetlands to the east make stretching out there untenable; plans to go west have always run, literlly, into Garfied Road, the major north-south artery on the east side of town.
Recently, however, the stars aligned and the airport got permission to bend Garfield far enough to the west to give the runway the length it needs to handle larger jets in any weather.
Now that a plan is in place, though, comes the federal budget sequester, the $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that took effect in March. The Federal Aviation Administration was to lose $253 million, and in response said it would close 149 control towers at smaller airports across the country.
Congress stepped in and halted those plans; now the FAA has permission to transfer $253 million among various accounts, but the change has put at risk $5 million to lengthen the runway. One step forward, one step back.
But in a bit of fiscal bravery not often seen on the local level, the airport commission recently awarded a $2.95 million paving contract for the extension project, despite the uncertainty of federal funding. Airport manager Kevin Klein said this is the last phase of the project and the airport commission can dip into its $4 million reserve fund if it loses federal money.
That’s a wise and proactive decision. Even if the work chews up the reserve fund and there are no assurances the feds will repay it, this is an investment Cherry Capital must make.
The airport’s biggest challenge right now, as it has been for years, is to get fares down to not only help the airport but local taxpayers; anything Cherry Capital can do to get fares to competitive levels should be done.
Untold numbers of local residents drive hours to Grand Rapids or Detroit for cheaper fares every week; getting more of them to fly out of Cherry Capital will help further reduce fares. encourage the use of larger, more comfortable jets and ensure more regular service.
Extending the runway is a key to all those issues, and it can’t be put off now.
Be happy the $4 million reserve was available and that it is being used wisely; that’s what it’s there for.