TRAVERSE CITY — Amid an airline industry still bouncing back from a double blow of pandemic and pilot shortages, Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport has fared notably well.
Airport Director Kevin Klein spoke with two industry experts, Jeffrey Hartz and Margaret Muir, both managing directors of air service consulting for Mead & Hunt, to explain why. Both also consult with airport management, and they said a few factors combine to keep people flying in and out of the airport. That’s even as similarly sized markets in the Great Lakes region continue to struggle.
Hartz showed how the pandemic wiped out nearly 40 years of nationwide airline passenger growth. Other major upheavals, from recessions to the drop in travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, looked minor compared to the plummeting line on the graph tracking nationwide air passenger trends.
People are flying again, although a shortage of pilots and airlines cutting lots of smaller regional jets from their rosters has kept the rate at 7 percent below pre-pandemic levels.
That average belies how uneven the recovery has been, with some Great Lakes airports still missing 50 to 60 percent of their pre-pandemic capacity.
“The good news is, Traverse City has been kicking the living daylights out of the industry and peer markets throughout the pandemic,” Hartz said.
Tourists never stopped flying to and from Traverse City, for one, he said. And for another, the region’s leisure market tends toward the upscale, which often weathers downturns in travel.
Business travelers remain an important part of the mix, too — business travel was the theme of the Traverse Connect economic strategy session at Delamar Traverse City, where Hartz, Klein and Muir offered their presentations.
Among the audience were leaders of various local businesses, city and county representatives plus several members of the Northwest Regional Airport Authority, the airport’s governing body.
People using the airport for work travel are a smaller share than before the pandemic, Klein said — 30 percent of travelers at Cherry Capital, according to an August survey, versus 40 percent in 2017.
But that’s a slice that is still largely missing at some airports, he said.
“We’re starting to see returns of that business traveler, so now is the time to travel, because the opportunities are there,” he said.
Traverse City also has a strong baseline business climate that still has people traveling, Hartz said. And similar locales, where the business travel crowd isn’t dominated by one huge employer, fared better when those massive corporations’ offices emptied during the pandemic.
Those big offices — say, big banks or tech giants like Microsoft or Google — going dark wiped out tens of thousands of trips, Hartz said.
Airlines see value in connecting places like Traverse City to major hubs, and Cherry Capital Airport’s flights to the three largest in the world puts it one stop away from about 5,000 destinations, Muir said.
And business travelers make the city, with its “fantastic” leisure market, work for airports year ‘round, she said.
Growth opportunities matter, too, she said, with Hartz laying out the numbers earlier in the presentation: Cherry Capital Airport went from three airlines serving six destinations and filling 35,734 seats in July 2012, to four airlines with flights to 17 destinations and 55,870 seats in July 2022.
Another factor that weighs toward keeping, expanding or even adding service to Traverse City is its comparatively higher fares, Hartz said, adding that customers might not be thrilled to hear it.
The current pilot shortage is very real, and makes past issues look like blips, Hartz said. Thousands of pilots retired during the pandemic, and COVID disrupted the pipeline of new pilots at the same time. Also, 46 percent of the current pilot population will hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 within the next 15 years.
Major operators started giving big raises and recruiting even more from regional airlines which, as a result, face a shortage of senior pilots to train others, Hartz said. Big raises and fast tracks to senior positions mean there’s never been a better time for anyone interested in aviation — Northwest Michigan College recently announced plans to expand its flight school.
Retiring so many regional jets with 50 seats or fewer — nearly half of all departures in 2005, but down to 15 percent in 2022 — could pose another challenge for smaller markets, he said. Airlines did so, both to deal with pilot shortages, using planes with 75 or so seats to serve the same routes, and because older, smaller planes required more maintenance.
But smaller airports could struggle to get enough passengers for those larger regional jets. Filling larger regional jets is an issue Cherry Capital Airport began tackling years ago, Hartz said.
Muir said it shows the importance for local passengers to choose their hometown airport if they want to keep those larger regional jets, as well as the connections they provide.