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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Essential Air Service

April 21, 2017

Given the choice, most Up North airline travelers fly from downstate airports not because of convenience, but cost.  For a single adult flying economy from Traverse City to Ft. Myers, Fla for spring break this year costs anywhere from $900 to $1,100.  From Grand Rapids, Flint or Detroit, $475-$500, or about half.

This has been the plight for decades, particularly in Pellston know as the “ice box” of the world with often record breaking winter cold temperatures.  Why the difference for only 211 air miles for less than 50 minutes?

It’s hard to get an honest answer from the airport’s only carrier, Delta/SkyWest.  Off the record, airline representatives will share it’s because that’s the price some will pay for convenience and time, particularly business and wealthy summer resorters that own the breathtaking 4-8 bedroom summer cottages nestled in Harbor Springs, Bay Harbor and along the blue waters of northern Lake Michigan.

Other knowledgeable observers speculate that it’s because Delta/SkyWest would like to get out of the upper Michigan market, particularly Pellston and above the Mackinac Bridge because of the seasonal fluctuation of passenger traffic. 

Not having service would be disastrous to our area for both business and tourism even with its outrageous ticket price, especially for summer resorts and hotels like The Grand Hotel.

Many say the current two flight a day schedule isn’t the best, but the early 6:30 morning flight does allow most to arrive across the country by mid-afternoon using the Detroit Metro hub. Late spring until early October a third flight is added, but only to Detroit and not Chicago.

Some recall Traverse City’s Chamber of Commerce putting up a guarantee to the then Northwest Airlines (Delta) to add an additional flight to meet their needs and much to the surprise of Northwest there was a demand with no guarantee having to be paid. Pellston was once also serviced by United and American, who simply added a stop to Pellston from Traverse City allowing us access to Chicago, as well as Detroit.

Petoskey’s Chamber Government Relations met last week and concluded that until Pellston becomes more competitive with ticket pricing, we will continue to experience leakage to Flint, Grand Rapids and Detroit and now Soo, Canada. As long as Pellston passengers continue to pay the high dollar, there is no incentive for Delta to change its pricing strategy. Delta/Sky West gets both the profit from its short run to Detroit and think the airline is double dipping from receiving a federal subsidy that President Trump proposes be cut under the current budget proposal sent to Congress.

Some surmise Delta/SkyWest under the current the current Essential Service program is required to find a replacement to take over the route. It’s still under clear why one of the other airlines serving TC can’t return to offering a quick stop to Pellston, like Delta has done some of the time to Alpena or the Soo, Michigan to make the market more competitive like what took place in Grand Rapids several years ago.

The Detroit News reported Monday that federal subsidies that keep passenger air service flying to nine of Michigan’s most isolated airports are again facing the ax.

President Donald Trump’s budget plan seeks to eliminate funding for what’s known as the Essential Air Service, which last year subsidized commercial flights to 173 rural airports at a cost of about $283 million.

The News noted Michigan has more communities in the program than any other state except Alaska. Advocates contend that discontinuing the subsidies could harm tourism and business development in northern Michigan, where the nine airports are located, including five in the Upper Peninsula.

The Trump administration says the program wastes taxpayer dollars on mostly empty flights to places that are within driving distance of larger airports. Other critics of the Essential Air Service say fears about cutting off rural communities from the rest of the world are overblown.

Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman from Watersmeet, whose northern Michigan district includes eight of Michigan’s nine EAS communities, has written President Trump indicating the subsidies provide a level of economic stability and opportunity in sparsely populated areas.

“People in our part of the world up there — especially in the U.P. but also in the northern third of lower Michigan — tourism is a big business,” he told The News. “That’s the lifeblood of the economy up there.”  Bergman is also a retired pilot for the former Northwest Airlines now Delta.

Sen. Gary Peters, the Bloomfield Township Democrat who sits on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, argues much the same.

Carlin Smith, president of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce, echoes what many of his Up North Chamber executives argue about the economic importance to the area. He said in recent years Pellston Regional Airport has seen a 4 percent uptick in flights — more than 52,500 origins and departures last year.

The uptick has come with hard work from local business leaders, who for more than 30 years have met as a Petoskey Regional Chamber Air Port Task Force to lure additional airline service and lower airline ticket pricing, unfortunately without much success.  They been able to lobby its county commission with state and federal support to build arguably one of the most attractive cedar log terminals with a full service restaurant. Traverse City’s Cherry Capital airport comes in a close second.

What happens next will be up to Congress in the next few months.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

April 20, 2017 · Filed under Winter



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