In 1995, Lansing, Michigan’s Capital Region International Airport (LAN) would proudly boast in local radio advertisements that is was served by eight airlines. In 1997, its passenger activity peaked at 720,365. A mere 20 years later that number has free-fallen down to two commercial airlines and a seasonal charter service and 323,510 passengers. In addition, aircraft operations have nosedived by more than 72 percent since 2000.
Granted some of these lower numbers are due to mergers such as Northwest into Delta; US Air into American, and Continental into United. But, another factor has to due with geography, as Lansing is sandwiched in between Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) – 75 minute drive, Grand Rapids’ Gerald Ford International Airport (GRR) – 60 minute drive, and Flint’s Bishop International Airport (FNT) – 45 minute drive.
With more flights, particularly via discount carriers like Southwest, Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant, embarking from Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Flint, travelers from Lansing are taking to the roads or using express bus services like Michigan Flyer to utilize those facilities instead of their own airport. As a result, Capital Region International Airport often resembles a ghost town where one might expect to see zombies roaming the corridors rather than passengers. A pretty sad statement for a state capital with approximately 500,000 residents in the metropolitan area and one of the largest and most influential universities in the nation.
A third factor at play in Lansing, which may not apply elsewhere and that no one in Lansing really wants to talk about is the near total lack of a unified financial, operational, promotional, and marketing effort by the three county government entities served by Capital Region International Airport. While situated near the heart of the Tri-County Region, the airport is only funded by Ingham County residents and is located in Clinton County. Meanwhile, Eaton County gets off largely scot-free. Folks, this is not the way to build a brand, buy it is sure-fire way to fail as one.
Lansing does not appear to be alone in seeing its airport slowly zombify, as many mid-markets across the nation have seen an on-going loss of airline service in the modern era. Given the importance of air travel as an economic development tool and the escalating costs associated with building and maintaining a modern airport, this trend is grossly unfair and inefficient.
All of us have experienced the frustration of being stranded at a airport as the entire system goes down because a hub city is beset with bad weather or some other unforeseen delay. If more flight and destination options were available, the system could potentially right itself quicker and throngs of unhappy campers would not have to sleep at gates waiting for a re-booked or re-scheduled flight. Unfortunately, airline bean counters appear to be ruling the roost and they appear to prefer higher profits over improved passenger experiences. Furthermore, airline regulators (if there is such a thing anymore) sadly do not seem inclined to push for expanded service to mid-markets.
Personally, I am no fan of airline mergers and feel most have hurt, not helped consumers and communities. The only solution I see is the creation of new airlines to fill the void leftover from mergers and reduced service. Whether there are willing entrepreneurs with the kind of dollars necessary to fund such undertakings remains to be seen, but its amazing what a little competition can do for lowering fares and improving service. Otherwise, the list of abandoned commercial airports may begin to rise in the United States as the costs of maintaining a zombified airport increasingly exceeds the benefits…or the potential.