By Michelle D. Anderson
MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI – General aircraft operations at the Muskegon County Airport declined by 7 percent in 2012, perhaps reflecting the impact of high fuel prices and the fall of the region’s manufacturing industry on airport business.
General aviation, which encompasses all unscheduled activity at the airport, includes cargo shipment, military activity and private aircraft activity.
It’s managed by the county’s “fixed-base operator” Executive Air Transport, which also offers sales, leasing, maintenance, air freight services and flight training for Baker College.
General aviation operations make up 95 percent of the airport’s activity, while the remaining 5 percent comes from commercial activity from SkyWest Airlines, managed by United Airlines, and now Sun Country Airlines. In January Sun Country began charter flight service to Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort & Casino in Laughlin, Nevada.
In 2008, commercial activity made up 11.5 percent of airport activity but the loss of Midwest Airlines service to Milwaukee drove the number down in recent years. While passenger activity on commercial flights are up by 27 percent, the 7 percent decline reflects the state of the airport’s overall activity combined.
Rex Vanderlinde, owner of Executive Air Transport since 1979, said many manufacturers like SPX Corporation no longer use its services.
“Some of those major employers aren’t here anymore, but that hasn’t stopped us. We just continue to grow,” Vanderlinde said.
Activity among business and manufacturing companies has continued to pick up since 2010 after a brief slump in that began in 2009, Vanderlinde said.
The year-round 24-hour operation employs 32 people and has 85 airplanes based on its field. Other activity includes Wings of Mercy flights, which provides patients free air transportation to distant medical facilities, Vanderlinde said.
Last year local manufacturers moved 13 tons of freight, Vanderlinde said, though the 2012 operations report compiled by county airport indicated that cargo activity dropped by 53 percent
Airport Manager Marty Piette also said some companies have cut back air services due to high gas prices.
“It’s not cheap to fly an airplane, so maybe some people aren’t flying as much as they use to when gas was $2 a gallon,” Piette said.
The operations report also showed a busy summer season for the military, which includes Air Force operations.
“The Coast Guard had quite an active summer season last year,” Vanderlinde said.
Ongoing economic activity
While numbers for 2012 seemed to have taken a downward turn, Vanderlinde said he’s seen an uptick in business among private groups.
“There’s always someone coming here for some economic activity,” Vanderlinde said.
“That’s including general aviation.”
Rex said during the last three years, he’s seen more visitors use the airport during the warmer months, indicating that more people recognize what the Lakeshore region has to offer with its many beaches and waterfront rental homes.
The airport continues to attract its longtime customers, including families with children enrolled in the popular Blue Lakes Fine Arts Camp, Vanderlinde said.
Vanderlinde estimated that charter passengers had increased by 5 to 9 percent.
“The trend is upward, but it’s not up by 20 percent as we would like,” Vanderlinde said.
Vanderlinde, who serves on Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce 2013 board of directors, said the airport has value even in spite of statistics indicating some declining activity.
Studies show that communities without airports don’t have the growth and potential development as communities that do have these facilities, Vanderlinde said.
The airport offers allows offers businesses to convenient access to its facilities allowing them to efficiently move personnel and products, saving time and boosting productivity, Vanderlinde said.
Piette and Vanderlinde said that private groups include potential businesses and developers that fly in and out of the county airport frequently — many include restaurants interested in expanding businesses near The Lakes Mall.
In 2008, the local chamber surveyed 125 business representatives to learn about their airport preferences and usage. The results concluded that 61 percent preferred the Norton Shores airport as opposed to hubs in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Chicago.
Vanderlinde ended his tenure on the county’s airport advisory board in December. The brainstorming group began two years ago so that airport managers, local citizens and elected officials could brainstorm ways to improve services and drive up business at the Norton Shores hub.
Piette said the airport continues to improve the facility and its next project includes repaving one of its runways.
Rillastine Wilkins, vice chairwoman of the county board and chairwoman of the commission’s transportation committee, said the county is currently working to obtain approval on contracts to improve the airport access roads.
“It is in the budget for this year,” Wilkins said.