Enplanements continue downward trend

ALPENA – The trend of declining enplanements at Alpena County Regional Airport is continuing and it is becoming a concern.

The airport and SkyWest Airlines has seen numbers dip for four out of the last five months when compared to the previous year. As a result the county has approved a “leakage” that is under way to help determine why travelers are choosing to bypass the local airport for others. The study’s results are expected in March.

Airport Manager Billi McRoberts said there are a number of factors that could be leading to the declining number of passengers. She said the harsh winter could be having an impact, as well as the economy. She said she does not believe the schedule is to blame, as it is much the same as it was when SkyWest took over for Delta Airlines in 2012.

“It is really hard to say what is behind this,” McRoberts said. “It could be the weather, the state of affairs in the country or less people taking vacations and traveling. The schedule is the same, so I hope it is just a fluke.”

January followed up a banner year where there were 15,893 enplanements, but the end of 2013 saw a slip in fliers. In January 2013 there were 1,334 enplanements and in January 2014 there were only 919. McRoberts said pricing has been consistent with SkyWest and she doubts that is seriously impacting the passenger totals.

“You can get a round trip to Minneapolis for $153 and round trip to Detroit for $133, depending on the demand for things like spring break,” McRoberts said. “That is cheap. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that.”

SkyWest entered into a two-year deal with Alpena to provide service in Alpena when Delta informed the Federal Aviation Administration that it intended to leave Alpena. After being approached by a coalition of business and government leader from Alpena the airline bid on the Alpena vacancy after several other bid processes produced little, or unattractive alternatives to Delta. McRobert said SkyWest’s contract expires in September and a new bidding process by the FAA will begin. She said SkyWest has indicated it likes Alpena and is interested in moving forward with it.

“I was speaking with them when the numbers started to dip and they assured us they intend to have a long-term relationship with Alpena,” McRoberts said. “But if the numbers continue to be really bad, who knows? At this point I’m sure they will rebid.”

It is also possible airlines that were not interested in Alpena the last time around could bid this time. McRoberts said it is possible more airlines bid, but the airport and the community seem to be pleased with what SkyWest offers and wants it to remain.

“There has to be a bid process to give other airlines an opportunity,” McRoberts said. “It is always good to know other airlines have interest, but SkyWest has been dependable and affordable. I hope the numbers bounce back and I can’t wait to see the results of the leakage study, so we can work to correct what is wrong.”

There also has been significant investment to the airport to accommodate passengers to make boarding the jet more timely for travelers and the airline. A larger holding area was built that allows more passengers to await boarding after clearing security screening. Before, screening would come to a halt once the previous holding area was filled, which extended the amount of time it took passengers to board and ultimately for the plane to take off. McRoberts said the airport and SkyWest have a good relationship and hopes steps can be taken to help bolster the numbers to where it means success for other parties.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews. Read his blog, Upon Further Review … at www.thealpenanews.com.