Feb. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Two years after its launch, the Michigan Flyer shuttle is claiming to match the Capital Region International Airport on some days in trips to Detroit.

As of Monday, according to the Web site Cheaptickets.com, a round-trip flight from Lansing to New York (Newark, N.J., actually) on June 20 would cost $276 and would take just under five hours with one stopover in Detroit.

If you took the Michigan Flyer, a shuttle bus to the Detroit airport (with stops in Jackson and Ann Arbor) from East Lansing, you could fly round trip to New York on that same date for $146 with a flight time of under two hours.

Now, you would have to tack on the two-hour bus ride and the $50 roundtrip fare, but you’d still save an hour and about $75.

This is probably not the kind of math the folks over at the Capital Region International Airport want to hear — and that’s not to say that the Michigan Flyer is consistently cheaper and faster than flying out of the Lansing airport. But as Michigan Flyer enters its third year in business, a healthy number of people seem to be choosing it over flying from Lansing.

Ody Norkin, the Flyer’s president, claims that on some days in December and January, his service shuttled more people to Detroit than flew there out of Lansing. On Dec. 13, for example — which was a Saturday, a day that airlines typically cut flights — Norkin claims that the Flyer carried between 500 and 600 travelers to and from the Detroit Metro Airport; the Lansing airport on those days has a total flight capacity of 454 — and that’s if all planes are 100 percent full. In the month of December alone, Norkin claims, the Flyer carried 10,500 travelers.

“On Saturday, Jan. 10, we didn’t have enough capacity,” Norkin said. “We had standbys. We could have accommodated even more.”

At the same time Norkin says that the Flyer, which is not subsidized by any state or local government, isn’t trying to compete with the Lansing airport. However, it would be hard to imagine that the two travel services don’t hold some kind of rivalry. When the Flyer debuted in November 2006, airport officials reacted negatively.

“It is really a stretch and hard to believe that you can convince a customer to connect with an airline by taking a bus,” Capitol Region International Airport Executive Director Robert Selig said at the time. Selig sent an e-mail to local business leaders shortly after the Flyer had launched claiming that it would fail, saying, “This same company ‘President’ has a community reputation for being a ‘schemer,’ presenting ideas and proposals that have no substance.”

Responding to requests for comment from Selig about Norkin’s figures, Nicole Noll-Williams, the airport’s director of regional market development, pointed out that Saturdays airlines always make reductions and that the airport on a typical weekday has 800 flying in and out.

“It’s comparing a flight out of Lansing to a two-hour bus ride that goes to Jackson and Ann Arbor. A typical flight to Detroit is 20- to-25 minute flight time, with an average of 55 minutes gate to gate.”

Noll-Williams also said that there hasn’t been a significant change in the airport’s leakage — the amount of travelers choosing other transportation options — compared to two years ago. Additionally, the airport is most likely always going to appeal to business customers, like local corporations.

“The big picture is looking at economic development. Existing corporations and new ones are not looking at the opportunities of riding on a bus,” Noll-Williams said.

So does that mean MSU students and other locals doing their traveling on-thecheap are trading the luxury of a 25-minute flight for the cost efficiency of a bus ride?

“I think across the board, people are looking at what’s the most economical option, whether it be price or time or frequency.” Noll-Williams said.

Norkin disagrees. Not only does he frown upon the convenience of a 25-minute flight — “ostentatious and wasteful,” he says — but also he touts his bus service as luxurious because it offers Wi-Fi and satellite radio and TV. Norkin says he sees upscale vehicles occupying the $2 per-day parking spaces the Flyer rents to customers in the ramp at the downtown East Lansing Marriott, which is where the service is based.

“We’re the first project that’s attracting not only those that need to ride but prefer our ride to their high-end vehicles; it’s mitigating congestion and pollution,” Norkin said. “Everyone is talking about energy independence; everyone that gets in our coach is walking the talk.”

Chris Holman, the chairman of the airport authority board, was a detractor of the Flyer when it began; “The market will dictate its success,” he said at the time. Two years later, his prediction may have come true.

“Obviously, there’s a market for their service,” Holman said. “But as a small business advocate, I’m glad that their business is flourishing.”

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