'Combined airports' lands with a thud

GRAND RAPIDS -- West Michigan is "over-airported" and should consolidate four airports into one -- at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, a local economic leader told a group of aviation experts on Monday.

Birgit Klohs, longtime president of The Right Place Inc., said the future of West Michigan should include a "mini-hub" in Grand Rapids.

At the same time, airports no longer would be needed in Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Lansing, she said. All are within about an hour's drive from Grand Rapids.

"In a region of 2.2 million people, four airports is a lot of airports," Klohs said. "The more airports you have dividing up different services, the less critical mass you get."

So far, especially in those other cities, the idea is landing with a thud. As one national airline official said: "It wouldn't fly."

Muskegon County Airport Manager Marty Piette said he stepped out to make a call just before Klohs spoke.

"It's probably a good thing," he said.

Klohs was one of several featured speakers at "Aviation in Michigan: What's on the Horizon," at Ford Airport. The seminar was hosted by U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, in a Northern Jet Management hangar.

Among the topics were modernizing air traffic control and the impact of aviation on West Michigan's economy.

Klohs, who flies around the world on jobs-seeking missions, said a strong airport is vital to lure business to West Michigan.

"If you're looking at where our companies are going globally, or if you're looking at attracting major conventions, air service is critical. It really is the first question asked: 'How good is the air service?'

"I'm looking long-term, what it will take to make this region successful."

Piette said the same idea was brought up recently during a conference call between airport managers and a local magazine.

It was not well-received then, either, he said.

Lansing Capital City Airport spokesman Robert Kolt called the idea "silly."

"I don't think anybody in Lansing wants to fly from Grand Rapids, and I don't suppose folks in Kalamazoo or Muskegon" want to lose their airports, he said.

To Kent County Aeronautics Director James Koslosky, however, the idea has merit.

"I believe the region would be better-served ... with concentrated air service," said Koslosky, who spoke on the panel with Klohs. "It would show mass to the airlines; we'd probably get more respect."

The Ford airport is big enough to absorb passengers from the other airports, he said.

"We've built for the future."

The Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport and Capital City Airport each handles more than 500,000 passengers a year through major airlines and low-cost air carriers.

Muskegon handles about 70,000 passengers with flights to Detroit and Milwaukee.

Ford Airport last year served more than 1 million passengers.

"I would say it might be worth talking about," Koslosky said. "But I don't know how much traction it would get."

Cities do not want to lose their airports and the millions of dollars they pump into the economy, he said.

He recalls the early 1960s, when Kent County was looking to move its airport from its original location at what is now Roger B. Chaffee Boulevard, near 44th Street SE.

They considered consolidating with Muskegon and building a new shared airport near Coopersville.

"It went down in flaming public debate," he said.