Going to Vegas? Northwest Backs Off Promise to Restore Nonstop Flights

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Las Vegas may be the most popular destination for travelers flying out of Grand Rapids, but getting there no longer is a nonstop affair.

Although the flights usually were full, Northwest Airlines has canceled its nonstop service from Grand Rapids to Las Vegas after just over a year.

The service had been due to restart in February after Northwest announced its temporary suspension in September.

But the Minnesota-based airline is keeping the service grounded, in part an effort to make sure adequate passenger traffic flows through its hubs.

"There are still plenty of connections from Detroit to Minneapolis to Las Vegas," Northwest spokesman Dean Breest said. "Coming out of bankruptcy, our goal is to maximize every flight we have."

The decision eliminated the only nonstop flight from Gerald R. Ford International Airport to the gambling and entertainment capital.

Airport spokesman Bruce Schedl-

bauer said just because the flights were full, that did not mean they were profitable.

"Indications were that demand for the service was not really the issue," he said. "It was just a matter of the route not being financially viable with the fare structures" in the market.

Raising ticket prices was not an alternative, Northwest's spokesman said.

Northwest would not comment on its passenger traffic since the direct flight was dropped, but it doesn't stand to lose much business. Grand Rapids passengers are booked on flights that go to the airline's hubs in Detroit and Minneapolis and then to Las Vegas.

An average of 120 people leave from the Ford airport for Las Vegas daily, according to airport statistics. By comparison, about 135 people leave each day for one of the three New York City-area airports.

The loss of the direct flight points to the importance of having competition, particularly low-cost carriers serving the airport.

For now, the fastest way to Vegas might be a trip to Lansing's airport, where Allegiant Air offers chartered nonstop service on certain days.

Schedlbauer said Allegiant is among many carriers Ford airport is trying to recruit.

That's because airport officials are concerned about a recent rise in ticket prices for Grand Rapids flights.

Travel professionals partly attribute the increase to low-cost carrier ATA's decision to stop offering service to Grand Rapids. Northwest's dominance of Michigan also means less fare competition, and financial troubles with other airlines have led them to scaled back or discontinue West Michigan service.

A government report last year showed prices for tickets out of Grand Rapids rose 18 percent between 2004 and 2005. The trend seems to be continuing, although the size of ticket hikes has slowed.

Grand Rapids air fares rose 7.5 percent between the third quarter of 2005 and the third quarter of 2006, slightly above the national average, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

That makes the market ripe for a low-fare carrier, such as Southwest or Jet Blue, Schedlbauer believes.

"Frankly, (the fare structure) is not where we want it to be," he said. "It's not outrageously high, but it is on the higher end across the country."

Part of the blame for not having a low-cost carrier serving Grand Rapids is market-leading Northwest's aggressive effort to maintain and protect the market, according to those who follow the industry.

When low-cost carriers or new routes from existing carriers emerge that compete with Northwest, the airline has moved to match or beat prices.

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