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Loss of Sawyer traffic troubling

Partnership News & Views

September 3, 2012
AMY?CLICKNER , The Mining Journal

We've all heard the phrase "fly from nearby," which has the same message as "shop locally" or "support your local." If we don't support our local businesses and service providers, then we stand the chance of losing the services they provide and the jobs they create. Case in point: Sawyer International Airport.

Scott Erbisch, Marquette County Administrator and former operations manager at Sawyer International Airport says, "There is great concern that if commercial passenger traffic continues to decline, as has been the trend in 2011 and the first half of 2012, Sawyer International Airport may not be able to retain existing levels of service or the daily flight schedules currently provided by the airlines."

Currently, as the largest airport in the Upper Peninsula, Sawyer has dropped from 53 percent of the market share in 2010 to only 36 percent in 2012. The drastic reduction in passengers at Sawyer can be attributed to several different factors:

One obvious reason that passenger numbers are down is because the number of flights coming in and out of Sawyer have reduced. Sawyer has experienced a reduction in the number of daily flights over the past couple of years, as well as the loss of direct connections to Minneapolis, Green Bay and Traverse City.

It appears that airlines may choose not to use Sawyer due to their inability to receive guaranteed revenue per seats. It's difficult for Sawyer to guarantee revenue because they are not eligible for the Essential Air Service (EAS) federal subsidy. In fact, they are the only airport in the U.P. that does not qualify. The EAS is a program used to ensure that small single carrier airports within small communities are served with commercial air service. Sawyer does not qualify for Essential Air Service for two reasons: the federal government will no longer subsidize any new airports under EAS, and Sawyer is not a single carrier airport.

Ticket prices are another contributing factor to Sawyer's passenger reduction. Being a non-subsidized airport with a low supply of flights, keeping ticket prices low is a challenge. Because other regional airports are either large hubs or subsidized single carriers, their ticket prices are generally lower which attracts passengers away from Sawyer. While competitive pricing is key to a healthy market, it's difficult to compete when the playing field is uneven.

Reduced passenger use at the airport directly impacts revenues generated for operating the airport. Sawyer currently operates with an annual deficit. Any further reductions in service and/or revenue compound this predicament. Falling passenger numbers also impact other businesses such as car rentals and local taxi services. Many people are not aware that there are well over 400 people employed by businesses holding leases with Sawyer International Airport.

On a broader scale, reductions also impact local business's efforts to recruit employees, or the ability/capacity for other businesses to consider locating in the Marquette area. Also, certain businesses in Marquette County conduct a great deal of commerce over the internet. Their ability to ship products cost effectively, and in a timely manner, is crucial to their success.

While it is enticing to drive to an airport that offers cheaper airfare, when considering all costs such as gas, additional overnight costs and the extra time, costs often equal out. Also, it is possible to find flights from Sawyer at a lower cost by planning your trip well in advance and being flexible about travel dates.

We need to be conscious of what is happening at our airport and do our best to support it. Continued decreases in passenger traffic will be difficult for the airport to absorb. Transportation is an important part of economic and workforce development, and Sawyer is a critical component of Marquette County's success. So remember, it is important to fly from nearby.

Editor's note: Amy Clickner is CEO?of the Lake Superior Community Partnership. Her twice-monthly column will address topics of interest to the local business community.



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