By KELSEY LESTER
Capital News Service
LANSING – As the number of airplane passengers takes flight in Michigan, some commercial airports are expanding to make air travel more accommodating.
With millions of dollars in funding, expansions are underway, so you’ll likely see a new gate near you.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many airlines around the country have had a difficult time resuming their usual traveler numbers.
However, Michigan has seen an increase in its passengers since 2020, but is still well below pre-COVID numbers.
The two largest airports, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County and Gerald R. Ford International in Grand Rapids have seen increases of over 18% from 2021 to 2022, and over a 5% increase from 2022 to 2023 so far.
That’s a difference of about 1 million passengers for the Detroit airport and of around 80,000 passengers for the Grand Rapids airport.
Gerald R. Ford Airport recently opened its $110 million expansion of Concourse A which is phase one of the project. The expansion added eight new gates, which officially made it Michigan’s second-largest airport.
According to the airport, phase two will close the gates of the existing portion of Concourse A for widening and renovations, add a second-level executive lounge and provide additional amenities for passengers. It is expected phase two will be completed in 2024.
Airport President and CEO Tory Richardson said in a press release, “This investment positions us for our anticipated passenger growth trajectory for the next two decades – and ensures we continue to deliver a world-class experience as West Michigan’s gateway to the world.”
The airport also broke ground on its consolidated rental car facility, a $156 million project that will provide rentals in one place to travelers. The facility will allow for less travel to pick up and drop off vehicles. The expected completion date is in 2025.
The Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airport isn’t seeing any large construction projects, but airport officials say they are adding new destinations about every month.
Another expansion has been at the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City. It’s on track to break travel growth records by the end of this year with more passengers and expansion of its concourse and new gates.
Cherry Capital CEO Kevin Klein said that has a lot to do with tourism — a “portal to paradise” in Northern Michigan.
“We continue to be what I call the Pure Michigan airport,” he said. “At Gerald R. Ford Airport, you’re just seeing growth come with the steady population growth of Western Michigan, but when you’re looking at Northern Michigan, it’s a little bit different.”
“We’re a destination that people want to visit. We see about 52% to 53% of our travelers use the facility from outside of Michigan — there’s not an airline or airport in Michigan that can say that,” Klein said.
The airport has been experiencing a 19% increase in passengers from 2022 to 2023, which would be its best year yet if that trajectory continues.
According to Klein, Cherry Capital Airport is currently in the “justification phase” of building an additional concourse, and its officials say they hope to complete that phase with the Federal Aviation Administration this fall.
The project would then move to further planning, design and construction, with work estimated to be finished in 2027.
Although the overall number of passengers has been growing, some local airports are struggling.
According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, the state has 235 airports open to public use. With most traffic going to larger cities, smaller ones are struggling to keep up.
The Muskegon County Airport is one.
From 2022 to 2023, it lost about 60% of its passenger traffic. Following that are Delta County Airport in Escanaba, which lost 36% percent of its passengers, and Alpena County Regional Airport, which lost about 30%, according to a May MDOT report, the most recent report available.
That is mostly because of airline companies dropping their routes or pulling out completely, along with far cheaper tickets from larger airports.
Regardless of these fluctuations, Michigan is growing not just in air passengers, but as an attraction as well.
“It’s really been positive for our growth. It’s not just in one specific area in the country — the whole country is looking at us as a destination,” Klein said.