Capital Region seeing passenger traffic rise as new flights arrive

DeWITT TWP. — After several years of flight cutbacks, dropped service and high fares that made travel from other cities more affordable, Lansing’s airport is on a bit of an upswing.

Passenger traffic at Capital Region International Airport climbed 8 percent in 2012, airport officials reported, marking the second consecutive year of growth after two years of sharp declines. And airport officials hope to sustain that trend this year, though popular low-fare carrier Southwest Airlines Co.’s entry to into the Flint and Grand Rapids markets could draw passengers away from Lansing.

“We’re just hoping for continued growth,” said Bob Selig, executive director of the Capital Region International Airport Authority, which oversees airport operations. “We grew from 2010 to 2011, and from 2011 to 2012.We’re trying to position ourselves again so we can go back to the days of old.”

More than 395,000 passengers boarded or got off planes at the airport in DeWitt Township in 2012, up from 366,000 in 2011 and a five-year low of 264,000 in 2010. 

Much of that growthcamecourtesy of Sun County Airlines, the Mendota, Minn.-based carrier that launched daily flights from Lansing to Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., in early 2011 and also offers seasonal flights from Lansing to Florida, Las Vegas, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Sun Country carried more than 112,600 passengers to and from the Lansing airport in 2012, up 15.5 percent from 2011.

Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines Inc. remains the largest player at the airport. Nearly 196,000 passengers flew into or out of Lansing on Delta flights last year, up 3 percent from 2011.

United Airlines, a unit of Chicago’s United Continental Holdings Inc. that serves Lansing through its United Express commuter carriers, logged more than 75,000 passengers in Lansing last year, up about 7 percent from 2011.

And Allegiant Air, the Las Vegas carrier that returned to Lansing inNovember after three years with nonstop flights to Orlando, Fla., carried 4,800 passengers over the last two months of 2012.

Southwest, based in Dallas plans to begin operating this year at Flint’s Bishop International Airport and Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids. Some flights will be new. Others will be little more than rebranding AirTran flights that already fly in and out of those airports.

Southwest bought Air- Tran Airways Inc. and is converting those operations under the Southwest name. Southwest also has a major presence at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Selig said it’s unclear how Southwest’s moves will affect Capital Region International Airport. For example, Southwest plans to add nonstop flights from Flint to Las Vegas in August but travelers can already find nonstop Vegas flights from Lansing on Sun Country for part of the year.

“We don’t know how much of a difference it will really make,” Selig said. “It appears they are just swapping airplanes and AirTran will just go away. It’s a brand change. We just have to wait and see where they decide to fly.”

Allegiant’s two weekly flights to Orlando are doingwell, and the low-fare airline is considering expanding its Lansing service, Selig said. Meanwhile, airport officials have asked Sun Country to consider starting its seasonal schedule in November and ending it in June. Currently, flights start anywhere from December to February and stop near the end of May.

“Those flights are very popular,” Selig said.

And the airport continues to lobby Delta to bring back the Atlanta route it operated in 2005 and 2006, before it bought Northwest Airlines and was flying to Georgia using its Delta Connection commuter planes, he said.

“What we’re asking ... is that Delta take a look at our boardings historically,” Selig said. “When Delta and Northwest were here, we boarded a whole lot more passengers than we do today.”

Passenger traffic at the Lansing airport peaked during the late 1990s atmorethan 720,000 but declined steadily through 2010.

“They’ve all got their own constraints and we just try to keep our irons in the fire,” Selig said. “There’s been no loss of interest in flying out of mid-Michigan, but there is less opportunity. So we’re confident that if we can move to levels before 2006, the people will be there to fill the seats.”