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Brian Ryks has been interested in aviation since he was in college, living in the Twin Cities area. His neighbor was a captain for Republic Airlines, and one day, he asked Ryks if he wanted to go flying.

"He picked me up and we drove south of town to an area between a couple of cornfields at the end of this big gravel path," Ryks recalls. "There was a grass runway between two cornfields. His friend was pulling out a Stearman -- an old, vintage, bi-wing aircraft with a big radial engine. A big yellow plane, the kind they use for barn storming. He started it up and told me to jump in. I put on the old leather goggles and we took off and flew around. When I was up in the air, looking around, I said, 'I need to get involved in aviation somehow.'"

Originally, Ryks aspired to be a pilot and received his private license. He was working on a commercial license, but decided he needed to find a job to manage the high costs of becoming a pilot. He took an internship at the Metropolitan Airports Commission, where he was immersed in all aspects of aviation. Following his internship, he was invited back for a part-time job, which became permanent. His career path changed from being a pilot into aviation administration, and his career has been taking off ever since.

He's worked in Denver, Aberdeen, St. Cloud and most recently, Duluth, MN, where he acted as the airport director for over a decade. Working in specialized areas in larger airports (noise/environmental issues, specifically) led to becoming the director of smaller airports, with the size of facility increasing as Ryks' career advanced -- Duluth serves 350k passengers each year compared to GRR's 2 million, for instance. But these two Midwestern airports face similar challenges. Much like West Michigan's own Regional Air Alliance (RAAWM) fought to secure a low-cost carrier to reduce flight costs, Ryks was successful in recruiting Allegiant and United to join Delta  (at one point the only carrier after American Airlines left) in Duluth. Ryks also oversaw major facilities upgrades to Duluth, and is no stranger to the promotion of encouraging a community to use the local airport -- a key aspect to the success of GRR due to its proximity to Detroit and Chicago's larger airports. "We want to capture that traffic," Ryks says, "and keep [locals] flying out of Grand Rapids. I think engaging the business communities is a key piece of it. I was really pleased to see there was a group here (RAAWM) committed to helping grow air service in the region."

Due in part to RAAWM's stalwart promotion of GRR as a viable hub, Southwest Airlines announced in January that they would continue to provide air service to Grand Rapids following their merger with AirTran. "[Southwest] is still trying to integrate the fleets, reservation system and employees and that'll take some time yet," Ryks says. "The good news is that Southwest has made a commitment that they're going to operate in Grand Rapids. That was a huge announcement."

While a catching a flight out of Detroit or Chicago may still boast a lower dollar amount, Ryks says the convenience of flying out of Grand Rapids and the accessibility of the airport should encourage the local jetsetter to consider GRR. A new parking structure ensures travelers will never have to walk out into the rain. Its size makes it manageable and less stressful than sprawling airports that require tram service to get from terminal to terminal. And using the local airport as it continues to grow is the best way to ensure that growth.

"The more people that use [the airport], the more options those people will have as far as airline service," Ryks says. "I view it as investing in your community, or your region. If you invest here, you're going to get a big return on that investment through additional airline service and improvements that will be made to the airport to make it more convenient and accessible."

At all the airports he's served, Ryks says safety/security is obviously the number one concern. But his focus beyond that includes economic development and "being a champion for the airport as far as educating the community on how important a role the airport plays in overall regional growth." Ryks also says customer service is "critically important" to him, and has a few improvements in that arena on his list of plans. He mentions "consolidated passenger screening" and "expanding the concourse to accommodate additional passengers" as two items. He also wants to move the baggage screening equipment out of the lobby, putting security behind the scenes "where it should be," and allowing more space in the ticketing area.

"I'm one that's big on first impressions, and we want to represent that this is a quality airport," Ryks says. "I think it is, but there are some improvements that can be made to further that. It's also the last thing people see on their way out. We want an impression that Grand Rapids is a first-class community and a good place to be. There are always things that can be done to improve our image." Ryks plans to involve himself in the local business community, as well as the convention and tourism groups.

Ryks stepped in officially on July 9. He brings his family with him, including a son in ninth grade who has an interest in aviation just like his father.

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.


Brian Ryks is the new CEO of Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photography by ADAM BIRD
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