Traverse City News and Events

Weathering The Pandemic: Cherry Capital Airport Slowly Rebounds

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 6, 2020

After dropping from a high of 1,210 passengers boarding daily in late February to a low of 13 in April, Cherry Capital Airport is slowly starting to see business increase – though enplanements are still down 71 percent, averaging 327 today compared to a normal average of 1,110 this time of year. Airport Director Kevin Klein gave Grand Traverse County commissioners an overview of the airport’s status at their Wednesday meeting, with one major silver lining coming in the form of federal funding that should keep airport finances stable the next two years.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, county commissioners agreed to take one final stab at working out an agreement with the City of Traverse City to put a pair of Senior Center proposals on the November ballot – one of several additional topics that appeared on the meeting agenda.

Cherry Capital Airport
Coming off a five-year run setting successive annual passenger records– culminating in 579,712 passengers in 2019 – Cherry Capital Airport was preparing for 2020 to be another big year, with the first quarter starting off with a 60.5 percent increase in traffic over 2019. “And then COVID hit,” Airport Director Kevin Klein grimly told county commissioners Wednesday. “We lost over 95 percent of our traffic. We’re now slowly climbing (back).”

The pandemic decimated airline business across the country, with Cherry Capital Airport’s losses in line with nationwide trends. Several airlines have adjusted their schedules or cut flights from Traverse City: Delta dropped to one flight a day from late March to late June, only recently building back up to three flights a day. American Airlines reduced flights to Chicago and scuttled planned new routes, including to Philadelphia. Allegiant’s Phoenix/Mesa route is “struggling to survive” and will likely end in November, Klein said, with the airline’s schedule potentially temporarily dropping from between six and nine flights a week to two. United has also reduced its Chicago schedule and ceased running its Washington Dulles and Newark routes this summer.

Klein said the type of traveler coming through Cherry Capital Airport “has completely changed through the COVID process,” shifting from business and leisure travelers to “mission-focused” passengers like EMTs, doctors, and relatives caring for family members. The airport is focused now on “rebuilding the trust and confidence in flying,” Klein said, with heightened attention on airport and aircraft cleanings, providing hand sanitizer throughout the building, requiring masks in the airport and on flights, and reducing touch points – such as allowing mobile check-ins and using automated toilet flushers and paper towel dispensers.

Klein said the toughest challenge facing the industry – even with those safety protocols in place – is convincing passengers who are sick or waiting on COVID-19 test results not to fly. “This is a time, more than ever, if you’re sick – stay home,” he said. “Do not fly. That’s a message we need to get out to everybody.” Klein said airlines were offering significant flexibility on rebooking and rescheduling flights so that if a passenger is waiting on results from a COVID-19 test, for example, they can make other arrangements and not feel obligated to fly. “That is the number one issue (facing) those in the aviation system,” Klein said.

Because of lost revenues, Cherry Capital Airport was originally facing a potential $1.9 million shortfall in 2020 – a deficit that was projected to climb to $8.5 million in 2021. “However, the CARES Act came to our aid,” Klein said, referring to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that provided $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus funding to both Americans and American industries across the country. Cherry Capital Airport received $14.8 million from the package, changing its cash position for 2020 from a projected negative $1.9 million to a positive $5.8 million. Funds are primarily being used to keep the airport in operation, workers employed, and the airport’s credit ratings stable, Klein said.

Airlines, car rental companies, and other airport tenants also received rent deferments from April to June from Cherry Capital Airport as part of the program. If paid back in 2020, those tenants will not be charged any interest for the deferred payments, Klein said. He noted that the CARES Act was the “first time in aviation history” that the federal government has intervened to ensure airlines are able to continue service. “Hopefully that stays the case,” he added, noting that additional aid could be coming if a second stimulus package being debated in the Senate – the so-called HEALS Act – is approved.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting…
> County commissioners authorized staff to take a final shot at working out a lease agreement with the City of Traverse City for the Senior Center building on East Front Street in order for a pair of proposals regarding the facility to appear on the November ballot. The city and county are facing a Tuesday deadline – the latest date that ballot language can be approved for November – to work out a long-term lease agreement for the county to continue operating the Senior Center within the city-owned building. County commissioners have said they won’t agree to put a millage request to voters to build a new Senior Center facility without a long-term lease guaranteeing the county the right to use the building for senior services. Traverse City commissioners agreed Monday to ask voters to approve the county lease in November – the move requires voter approval because the property is city parkland – but county officials remain worried about the actual lease terms. County commissioners expressed skepticism those issues could be resolved in the next six days, but said they’d be willing to call a special meeting to vote on putting the building millage request on the ballot if city and county staff can reach an agreement on lease terms before Tuesday.

> Commissioners declined to take up a request from Sheriff Tom Bensley to add two full-time road patrol positions – one sergeant and one deputy – to his department for the purposes of staffing a full-time interdiction team. The Sheriff’s Office made the same request last fall, but was told by commissioners to come back with a proposal on how to fund the positions. Bensley said Wednesday there was funding available to add the positions through the end of 2020; however, he did not yet have specifics on how the positions would be funded through 2021 and beyond. Commissioners said they would be willing to review the request as part of the upcoming 2021 budget planning process, with Commissioner Gordie LaPointe saying he’d be supportive of adding the two positions if Bensley eliminated two vacant positions elsewhere, keeping his overall staff head count the same.

> Finally, commissioners agreed Wednesday to repurpose the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a fund originally established in 2010 to support affordable housing development but which “has been largely underutilized since its creation,” according to County Administrator Nate Alger. The fund, which contains roughly $300,000, will now be called the Home Rehabilitation Trust Fund. It will provide financial assistance to area nonprofits to help low-income residents rehab their homes or make emergency repairs – such as fixing roofs, broken water lines and windows, or failed heating systems – to ensure residents can safely stay in their homes.

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