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Published: Monday, 2/8/2010

End airport fees, take off

PASSENGER traffic at Toledo Express Airport is at its lowest ebb since the airport opened in 1955. In response, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority is cutting by half or more the per-passenger fees it assesses airlines that operate nonstop flights at the airport for which they charge relatively low fares.

But if Toledo Express is to keep and attract airlines and flights, compete more effectively with Detroit's much larger metropolitan airport, and serve as a more-vital economic engine for the region, the better course would be to abolish the landing fees entirely.

The airport previously charged landing fees of $10 to $14 a passenger. The port authority has reduced that fee to $5 for direct flights whose fares are lower than those on comparable routes to the airports with which Toledo Express competes most closely.

That discount is a good start, but eliminating the landing fees would be an attention-grabbing gesture. It could provide an incentive for airlines to look more favorably on flying out of Toledo Express. That's especially true given the dominance of Delta Air Lines at Detroit Metro, now that it has absorbed the former Northwest Airlines and its Detroit airport hub.

Getting rid of the fees would deprive Toledo Express of about $200,000 in a budget of roughly $6 million, according to last year's figures. The port authority already provides $1.5 million in annual subsidies to the airport. But if dropping the fees encouraged airlines to boost passenger service to and from Toledo, the airport would benefit financially in many other ways.

Toledo Express needs to do something dramatic. Fewer than 183,000 passengers used the airport last year, down from nearly 251,000 in 2008 - itself the lowest total since 1964. The volume of air freight the airport handled last year was the lowest since its main cargo facility opened in 1991.

To an extent, these declines reflect the poor economy. But the fact that the airport now offers nonstop passenger service to just five cities (Detroit is one of them) suggests that many air travelers in this region choose to or have to take their business elsewhere.

Reversing the downward trend in traffic will require more airlines offering more passenger flights at Toledo Express, even as the airport works to expand its international and domestic cargo operations. It also would help if charges for passenger parking were to remain below those at Detroit Metro, or even to be further reduced.

A much busier Toledo Express could be an economic catalyst that would encourage related businesses to establish or expand operations near the airport site. Should that happen, port authority board members might need to conduct fewer debates about whether businesses in Bowling Green and Lake Township are sufficiently "local" to deserve airport contracts. They are, but it's understandable that the board would want to give preference to contractors that pay taxes in Lucas County.

Similarly, evidence of greater activity at the airport might encourage the Federal Aviation Administration to look more favorably on keeping some air traffic control work at Toledo Express instead of possibly moving it to Cleveland's airport. Complaints by Toledo controllers and pilots that such a shift would jeopardize safety seem overblown, but it still would be good to keep the work here.

Toledo Express generates about $640 million a year in regional economic activity. Still, the port authority evidently needs to do more to remind airlines and passengers that the airport is open for business. Zeroing-out the landing fees would be a conspicuous way to accomplish that.



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