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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2010

Surveying air traffic

EVEN in these depressed economic times, Toledo-area businesspeople travel to other major U.S. cities on a regular basis. For there to be any chance to induce those fliers - and the airlines that serve them - to frequent the local airport, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority must know where they're going and what airports they use.

It's been about a decade since the port authority surveyed flier habits. The agency hopes that bridging that information gap will help it make a case to airlines to begin or expand service in and out of Toledo Express Airport. Business travelers are the critical component because it is their full-freight tickets, not the low-cost fares other travelers seek, that airlines covet.

Passenger service at Toledo's airport has been an endangered species since deregulation in the late 1970s opened the door to the "hub and spoke" model used at airports such as Detroit's. The roller-coaster passenger numbers of the past 30 years at Toledo Express have been characterized by ever-deeper valleys, leading to last year's total of just 182,827 travelers - fewer than in 1955, the year the airport opened.

Not counting vacation flights to Florida, there are only seven daily flights out of Toledo - four to Detroit and three to Chicago. Flights and destinations both must expand if Toledo Express is to thrive.

Cutting per-passenger airport fees in half (or more) on some flights, as the port authority did last month, was a positive move to sweeten the pot for airlines, although eliminating the fees entirely would have had a more-dramatic effect. Identifying the flight habits of travelers, especially business passengers, is a logical and inexpensive - $6,000 for the survey - next step.

The most important ingredient, however, will be for area businesses to commit to making Toledo Express their airport of choice, in return for more flights offered to more cities. That commitment, along with a recovering economy and expanded cargo services, might just be enough to keep the runway lights burning.

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