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Wednesday, December 29,2010

Robert Selig

The executive director of the Capitol Region International Airport talks about attracting Sun Country Airlines, the airline business and going international

by Andy Balaskovitz
Illustration by Vince Joy

How does your background in law enforcement tie into your job as an airport director?


Law enforcement or public safety is an integral part to the whole airport business. The emphasis on it has been growing throughout my whole career. Since 1974 when we first started having hijackings and of course 9/11 has really stepped it up. It’s a key part of the overall function.


How has the air transportation industry changed over the years?


The industry has stayed the same in that it’s very unstable and volatile. That’s how it changes. It seems to change daily. The challenge is always keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the industry and trying to anticipate the future for the community.


What does unstable and volatile mean as far as airlines go?


It seems like for the last 20 years there have been ongoing bankruptcies, mergers and liquidations of airlines and yet they keep getting back into business. It’s kind of strange that they report year after year of supposedly not making money and always operating in the red. Yet none of us could operate in the red for 10 to 20 years and still survive. Sun Country is one of the remaining airlines in the United States that has gone through bankruptcy itself but it came out with a new strategic plan and is focused on a future. We as a region are very fortunate to be a part of that future.


Do you foresee more federal regulations to oversee these fewer airlines?


In 1978, the federal government deregulated the airline industry, which kind of allowed them to do anything they wanted. Over the 30-some years since deregulation, the focus on meeting community needs to grow their economies from the federal level has kind of faded and they have bought into, ‘The first thing we have to do is make the airline profitable.’ And so they’re permitting the sacrificing of the regional economic focus almost exclusively to meet the needs of the airlines.


It sounds like there is a bit of tension between airports, the community and the airlines.


You’re catering to the needs of the airlines to encourage them to come here. But that’s the game we play. Is there a chance we’ll add more regulation to the airline industry? I don’t think Congress wants to do that.


What if the public moves away from wanting to fund the airport for, say, high-speed rail?


There is an idealistic point of view about rail transportation that is focused around the environment and around emotional needs. It’s OK to work toward those directions, but we can’t sacrifice the reality that air travel worldwide is the staple of transportation and economic growth. So as you grow and develop and do the cost/benefit of developing one mode, you shouldn’t sacrifice what’s already working for you. That’s where we are. If trains were the pragmatic mode of transportation for this world today, they wouldn’t have gone out of business in the first place.


At some point, though, the airline industry was young too and there wasn’t the infrastructure there.


That’s true. But as the aircrafts grew up and got better, the aircrafts and airports kind of grew together. They grew up incrementally taking baby steps as they went. And it wasn’t as expensive as, in essence, redoing the whole U.S. rail system. Operating this whole network of high-speed rail is something that is, to my knowledge, not being considered. The last thing the federal government needs is another system that can’t pay its way — another Amtrak. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, though.


How have things changed at the Capital Region International Airport over the last year?


On the surface, we’ve been battling for a three-year period. We went through the Delta/Northwest bankruptcy, came out of that and went through the merger. Lansing, like many cities, lost a lot of air service. When we went through the analysis side of it, we found that we had all this demand. Did it go away, have people lost interest in flying? Some had. I would say 10 percent to 15 percent of the public got fed up with flying and took a break. On the other hand, the rest of it was just people that were trying to get a seat anywhere they could. A majority of them went through Detroit.


What’s your vision of the Capital Region International Airport in the next 10, 15 years?


I think the (Capital Region Airport) Authority Board, from a strategic planning point of view, has really put this airport on the right course by expanding the strategic plan to include international focus. The Sun Country development is all because we went global. In the first four years since the board made that decision we’ve been investing in infrastructure. We established the airport as a U.S. Point of Entry and also as a foreign trade zone. The package of capital improvements and federal designations is what opened up the whole future for us.


What we are growing to be is a new generation of airport. It is our full strategic intent to ensure that Lansing grows to be the gateway to Michigan from an international point of view.


So the foundation has been laid, so to speak?


Exactly. That means, maybe 10 years from now, we’ll need a new terminal. But by that time we’ll have built the business up and everyone will say, “Of course.”

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