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More holiday-eve airport snarls? Maybe not at Detroit, Grand Rapids

By Lacee Shepard
Capital News Service

LANSING — Future travel plans will become more frustrating on the day before major holidays, the U.S. Travel Association warns, but airport officials in Detroit and Grand Rapids aren’t concerned. An association report predicts in the next 15 years, more than half of the world’s largest airports will face that problem due to increases in travelers. The report said in the first half of 2013, enplanements increased 3 percent, more than in past years.

Michael Conway, director of public affairs at Detroit Metro Airport, says there are fewer holiday-eve delays now. “The waits are reducing and the reason is because there are less aircraft in the sky,” Conway said. “Airlines are reducing their flight schedules quite a bit. Therefore there’s a capacity issue.”

Conway said some of the problems arose in the mid-2000s when the number of passengers grew but airport capacity did not keep up. “What’s happened since the recession in 2008 is airlines realized they couldn’t fly as many planes with fewer passengers, so they reduced their schedules,” Conway said.

To solve the problem, planes flew with a higher load factor, which means more seats filled per flight. Some things can be done to keep airports running smoothly and prevent the predicted increase in travel delays, according to Conway. Detroit Metro has newer terminals that allow the airport to remain flexible with the ever-changing technology in passenger screening checkpoints. “For instance, in one terminal there are false floors, where all of the wiring cabling and fiber optic that feeds the passenger screening checkpoints are,” Conway said. “So when there is a change in technology, they don’t have to drill through the terrazzo to make the change. They just take the false floor out.”

Conway said he doesn’t think travel delays are going to become a part of daily life, especially in the terminal area. “The only place you’re going to really find congestion is sometimes at check counters,” said Conway. Sometimes around holidays with people flying for leisure, the arrival drop-off area will also be busier — at least busier than the usual business fliers. The larger problems are spatial when airports need more runways or more room, but that isn’t the case in Detroit, which won’t need to expand its airfield until 2040, he said.

Although he said he hopes the economy picks up and results in more passengers, the airport has seen a consistent number of fliers for the past three years. “The travel delays becoming the new normal doesn’t make sense to me,” said Conway. “There are less delays than ever, less delays than in the mid-2000s because there is less capacity in sky.” By reducing capacity, airlines have been able to increase demand, making some airports profitable even in the recession, Conway said.

Conway says the widespread belief the day before Thanksgiving is the worst travel day is a myth. The real busiest time is the Sunday after. Tara Hernandez, the communications manager at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, said she hasn’t seen the type of delays the report is predicting. She said it could be because of the size of the airport. Since it is not a large airport, it could be avoiding the problem. More people are traveling, Hernandez said, and more businesses are using travel again. Thus airlines are trying to accommodate them by making it easier for passengers, but because larger airports handle more people, they find it harder to match the efficiency of smaller airports.

Hernandez said that after Sept. 11, 2001, the number of passengers decreased. However, as the years have gone by, the number of passengers has grown. In 2003, the Ford Airport served more than 1 million people, Hernandez said. In 2012, that number grew to more than 2 million and continues to rise.

 

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