Airport bid options hinge on flight times

For those of us excited about the possibility of Minneapolis flights returning to Alpena I’m afraid I have some bad news — temper your enthusiasm for a few weeks.

Earlier in the week it was revealed SkyWest, in its bid to continue federally subsidized air service in Alpena, had given local officials a choice between continued 12 round-trip flights to Detroit, or another option: seven non-stop flights to Detroit and five to Minneapolis. As the excitement around town mounted regarding the possible return of the Minneapolis option, that bubble was popped Wednesday when members of the county commissioners’ airport committee were asked to hire a consultant to examine the two options, and then recommend which of the two options would best serve the region.

On the surface, I would agree the request for a study makes sense. No one wants to make the wrong choice and everyone wants to see what is best for the region.

I believe the $2,250 price tag is too steep for that study, however, and I have concerns about the consultant committee members want to hire. I believe the recommended consultant is outstanding and has done a great job for Alpena in the past — that is not my concern. My concern was the fact that he was the only consultant considered. For the sake of objectivity, I believe the committee should hire someone with no prior work experience in Alpena who will review the situation from a “fresh perspective.”

At this point no one in Alpena knows what the flight schedule would be for any of the flights in either option. Until that is available, absolutely no informed recommendation can be made by anyone. The flight schedule is critical to the evaluation of both options.

The focus of the decision is going to come down to what times travelers are getting into either Detroit or Minneapolis. Both are Delta hubs, and both offer a wide selection of connecting flight opportunities. However, to business travelers, getting into either hub early is essential so that time is not wasted and meetings can be held, and concluded, so the traveler still can return back home in one day.

We know the current Detroit schedule is working well. It may not be perfect, but it is solid. And, it seems to meet the needs of most local travelers.

The question becomes … if Minneapolis was also an option, would it be able to work just as well?

I believe the answer is yes. Using myself as an example, last fall my wife and I flew into Portland. We started in Alpena, flew to Detroit, then Minneapolis, and then Portland. It would have worked out so much better for us to have skipped Detroit and flown directly into Minneapolis from the start. Plus, it would have cost less, and got us into Portland quicker.

From what I have been told the majority of travelers from Alpena get connecting flights in Detroit that are heading west. The second most connections are south, while the least amount of connectors head east. If that is the case, again Minneapolis would be a good alternative.

One of the unknowns I hope a consultant will consider in this evaluation is the travelers from northern Michigan heading to Mayo Clinic. I have been amazed by the number of people who use Mayo from across the northern part of the state, many of whom would prefer to fly than drive for their treatments or appointments. When the SkyWest Minneapolis leg from Alpena was discontinued several years ago, I heard from many of them who were disappointed and frustrated they no longer had that option available to them.

As several said in their correspondence to me at that time, often they would drive to Alpena from afar, get a motel room and stay overnight, to catch the flight the next morning. They enjoyed the peace of mind of knowing they would arrive in Minnesota refreshed, and not worn out from the traffic and the drive.

The last time Alpena had a Minneapolis connection I had a son and his family living there. Today that family lives in Detroit so my use of the Minneapolis slot won’t be as frequent, but I still believe Alpena would best be served by service to both cities.

If projected numbers alone are the barometer used to evaluate the options, I believe committee members would choose both Minneapolis and Detroit.

That isn’t the case though, and again, it all will revolve around the flight times. Once those times are made public, all of us will gain more insight into the final decision.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13.