Rural Michigan fears airline route changes will be ‘disastrous’

In what’s already a record-setting year for air travel turmoil, rural Michigan is bracing for more disruptions this fall.

Five of the state’s smallest airports are learning that SkyWest Inc. — a regional contract carrier operating under Delta brand and these airports’ only passenger carrier — plans to cut direct flights in September.SPONSOR

The changes at airports in Alpena, Sault Ste. Marie, Escanaba, Iron Mountain and Pellston will add hours to plane trips, limit seats and, in some cases, require overnight stays in Detroit or Minneapolis to flights that now can take one day.

And the airports — many of which are reporting a return to pre-pandemic full planes this summer — stand to lose passenger counts that are vital to federal funding. The changes could cost each $1 million, which could represent more than half of their operating revenue. 

The impact will be more than an inconvenience to rural communities: The airports are essential for residents and local economies,  and heavily subsidized by the federal government because they are considered vital yet wouldn’t make money otherwise. 

“A daily nonstop flight … is the economic lifeblood of northern Michigan,” said Dennis Lennox, a consultant from Cheboygan County who travels almost weekly from the Pellston airport north of Petoskey for work. 

“Particularly in a day and age when, over the last two years, more and more have moved to northern Michigan because they can work remotely but occasionally have to jump on a plane.

“This is disastrous for northern Michigan,” he said. 

The changes start Sept. 12, and SkyWest blames them on a pilot shortage. Nationally, the airline industry is short an estimated 12,000 pilots after a wave of retirements during the pandemic.

Under the new system, SkyWest is “tagging” routes. That means that nonstop flights for a 30- or 50-seat plane have been replaced with an air travel version of a bus route: The plane starts at a hub and makes stops along the way to the other hub.

At each point, some passengers can get off and new ones can board. 

Here’s where it gets more complicated: The plane may fill along the way, meaning it could be sold-out by the time it reaches later stops — places like at Delta County Airport near Escanaba, which set a travel record in July with about 2,000 passengers. And that may mean higher prices for customers.

“We’ve been consistently full from Escanaba, just by ourselves,” airport manager Andrea Nummilien told Bridge Michigan. “Now you’ll have two different communities competing for those seats.”

Where people board flights also have financial implications for the airports.

Each person getting onto the plane is counted as an “enplanement” by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation as both track air travel and fund airports and infrastructure. 

So a person flying from Detroit and ending up in Minneapolis after stops in Pellston and Escanaba would only count — in funding terms — in Detroit. 

The changes coming this fall follow Delta’s decision in January to cancel flights to Minneapolis from Marquette.

In March, SkyWest sought to drop its flights from both the Muskegon County and Houghton County Memorial airports. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation said SkyWest had to operate until replacement carriers are found. SkyWest is under contract in both communities through January. 

The airline did not answer requests from Bridge Michigan for details on the changes and the staffing situation. 

However, in a statement, it said it will “be adjusting flight schedules in select markets to ensure we can continue to provide travelers with quality, reliable service … as we work through a crew imbalance that is affecting the aviation industry.”

Nummelin said customers with booked trips are getting notifications about the changes, and she hopes the plan may change. Regional airport leaders are already looking for alternatives.

Business travelers may be hardest hit, she said. New midday flight times, she said she’s been told,  “make it impossible” for them  to fly out of Escanaba.

Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP economic development group, said the same situation will exist at the other UP airports when early morning nonstop flights turn into midday, three-stop trips.

“You really lose the better part of the day,” he said. “… So it’s become really worrisome and frankly, frustrating.”

Houghton County is alone among the Upper Peninsula’s 15 counties to gain population in the 2020 census. Fittante said the region is struggling to attract residents and lack of transportation options makes it harder.

“We’re so distant to some parts of the Lower Peninsula and the connectivity of what goes on there,” Fittante said. 

“There’s an opportunity for us to really be part of Michigan prospering, and yet we can’t make it work,” he said, if it can’t efficiently bring corporate leaders in for visits.

“We can’t take three days for one day’s worth of business,” he said.

Despite the changes, rural airports have been busy this summer.

In 2019, before the pandemic slowed air travel, record numbers of people flew across the U.S., including about 21 million passengers who boarded commercial flights in Michigan. 

About 85 percent of them flew out of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County  Airport, with another 8.5 percent flying from the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.

While Michigan’s smaller airports fly just a fraction of the people as the state’s biggest, passenger counts are returning to 2019’s record-setting levels in places like Escanaba (18,731 travelers) and Chippewa County (24,416). 

In Pellston, about 20 miles north of Petoskey, the airport is vital to tourism as well as newcomers who have moved into vacation homes since the pandemic, said Charlie MacInnes, chair of the Pellston Airport Authority.

Flights in and out of the lodge-like airport decorated with taxidermy “are full,” MacInnes said.

“If anything,” he added, “we could use more.”

Fittante said he and other community leaders recognize the difficulty airlines face with staffing today. He said he has a conversation scheduled on Monday with Delta, and he said he’s grateful that the airline is willing to discuss the changes. 

State Rep. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, said he, too, is contacting the airline, along with the Department of Transportation,  to see if there’s a solution “that keeps transportation lines open to northern Michigan.”

Tami Beseau, the manager of the Chippewa County airport, said she looks at the bright side: Even though the changes are frustrating, it’s better than SkyWest leaving the airport.

“In the scheme of things, we’re still coming through pretty unscathed,” she said. “People will just have to sit back and remember that a little bit.

“It’s not optimal by any stretch and it’s going to hurt us financially, and we’re going to grumble because of the flights, but we do still have air service here.”

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