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Opinion: Think aviation to keep Michigan's economy moving

Jim Holcomb

If there’s anything that we have learned throughout this global pandemic, it is just how important mobility is for our economy and society as a whole. Michigan Chamber members and individuals everywhere rely on our infrastructure network which is an interconnected web that supports our food chain, the transportation of commercial goods, operations at major companies and nearly every industry and sector of our country.

Trains, cars, ships and aircraft are all tools that power our economy. Here in Michigan, that includes our network of local public-use airports and general aviation planes or smaller aircraft. We took a devastating blow here in Michigan — lockdowns and quarantine measures brought manufacturing almost to a complete stop, and all but the most essential industries and companies, including their supply chains, ground to a halt.

The Michigan Chamber has seen firsthand that this pandemic has had a ripple effect on our businesses and communities, and has impacted companies of all sizes in terms of efficiency and competitiveness. Business aviation, which is a part of general aviation, is a critical tool that helps businesses maintain their competitive edge in the global market. Our network of airports allows businesses and firms to rapidly connect to other parts of the nation.

Public-use airports are also a critical tool in providing access to transportation in areas where there may not be commercial service, Holcomb writes.

For example, it is not uncommon for manufacturers that encounter mechanical or supply problems to fly needed parts, tools, or personnel to other locations. General aviation aircraft, and our network of local airports, allow for quick, point-to-point connections that allow a company to rapidly bring in an expert to troubleshoot a problem, meet with multiple customers and reach otherwise inaccessible locations. All this is to say that as we emerge from this pandemic, our network of airports will play an important role in rebuilding our economy.

Public-use airports are also a critical tool in providing access to transportation in areas where there may not be commercial service. To give you a sense, our state is home to over 200 general aviation airports, many of which may connect communities which do not have commercial service. Public-use airports are also job creators, by both training and hiring mechanics, technicians, and flight instructors, which support the local community.

Furthermore, there are businesses, like restaurants and car rental companies, which also support the airport and produce jobs. All told, general aviation is a $247 billion-per-year industry that supports more than 1.1 million American jobs. In Michigan, general aviation supports over $5.2 billion in economic output and more than 33,000 jobs, resulting in $1.4 billion in labor income.

General aviation is also vital in supporting critical services, including medical transportation, search and rescue efforts, and other important public services.

Over the past few months, general aviation aircraft and volunteer pilots have been helping to move critically needed supplies. Our network of airports, paired with the versatility of general aviation, has proven invaluable in transporting personal protection equipment, COVID-19 test samples, and even ventilators to areas that are desperately in need of supplies.

But general aviation is also suffering as a result of this pandemic. Nationwide, business aviation activity continues to be down, and some smaller airports across the country have seen activity decline by as much as 90%. Here in Michigan, general aviation flight operations were down by 22% in June when compared with the same periods in 2019.

Our economy is still hurting. As we try and rebuild from this pandemic, mobility will be very important to every sector.

To attract investment and retain Michigan jobs, we must have a healthy general aviation industry in our state. Our policymakers in Washington have shown great leadership in supporting this crucial piece of our infrastructure through relief. Hopefully, they will continue to do so, and state policy makers follow suit to ensure that our economy continues to recover.

Jim Holcomb is senior executive vice president and general counsel at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.