Dick and Betsy DeVos- Institution Changers

Years ago, Dick DeVos called AirTran Airways’ CEO to ask for help with the Grand Rapids airport to add flights. The call helped boost air travel in West Michigan. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talked with the CEO of Southwest Airlines during a visit to Grand Rapids last week.


When AirTran was purchased by Southwest, he was able to bring his hometown’s airport to Grand Rapids. The next step was convincing Southwest to keep the routes. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she told AirTran customers to expand service to boost sales.


In 2013, Southwest Airlines added several new flights to cities across the US. That year, the company’s passenger growth exceeded the national average. As a result, it started implementing major upgrades in 2018, including a new restaurant and bathrooms.


Betsy DeVos’ husband had an interest in having the Grand Rapids airport succeed. He also owns the hangars where his private aviation school is located. At the hangar, Dick and his wife started an aviation-themed charter school.


Although he had no commercial experience flying, DeVos was asked to take on the lead role in bringing Southwest to Grand Rapids. Some conversations are better off done between people, DeVos said. Establishing a group of people who are interested in the same topic can help build consensus and build trust.


Low-cost carriers have been key in moderating ticket costs as the number of major carriers has dropped. Through the Regional Air Alliance, a private group that was formed to improve the operations of West Michigan’s airport, Betsy DeVos was able to create a public-private partnership that will benefit the region.


Dan Wiersma was selected as the project’s wingman after being associated with the late Peter Cook for two decades. After exploring the possibility of establishing low-cost air service, Wiersma and DeVos concluded that the airport should be more than just a public utility.