Local air travelers got good news with the announcement that a low-fare carrier is starting seasonal direct service between Toledo and Myrtle Beach, S.C. But the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority must do more to rebuild passenger service at Toledo Express Airport to make it a real option for consumers -- such as looking at eliminating its landing fees altogether.
Georgia-based Vision Airlines said last month that it will launch twice-weekly flights between Toledo and the South Carolina resort in early June, and continue through at least late October. It plans to begin similar service to Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. The port authority says it is temporarily waiving landing fees for Vision at Toledo Express, and subsidizing some ground-services costs.
Allegiant Air offers direct flights between Toledo and the Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg markets in Florida. The port authority hopes Allegiant or Vision will pick up direct service to southwest Florida that ended when the charter carrier DirectAir shut down in March.
The other passenger service at Toledo Express is to and from Chicago, offered by American Eagle, a regional subsidiary of bankrupt American Airlines. Fewer than two-thirds of the seats on these flights generally are filled.
In 2010, passenger traffic at Toledo Express reached its lowest ebb since the airport's first full year of operation in 1956. At the airport as elsewhere locally, recovery from the recession has been fitful.
The port authority has a $750,000 federal grant, and other local money and resources, to offer revenue guarantees and related marketing and advertising incentives to airlines to expand passenger flights and routes at Toledo Express. Authority officials talk hopefully about getting direct service to and from Denver.
But the airport's options are limited. An industry analyst estimates that 95 percent of Toledo air passengers use Detroit Metro Airport. He told The Blade he considers Toledo Express, which the port authority expects to lose $700,000 on operations this year, a "lost cause."
The largest airlines are not likely to come to Toledo Express. It's unrealistic to expect Delta Air Lines, which is heavily invested in its Detroit hub, to compete with itself by resuming service here.
In a recent letter to The Blade, Jerry Chabler, the chairman of the port authority's airport committee, identified other factors that are obstacles to broadening Toledo Express service. They include rising prices for jet fuel, continued consolidation within the domestic airline industry, and the impact of industry deregulation -- including the loss of government subsidies for less-profitable routes -- on airports in smaller communities.
It may be time for the airport to try something radical. Instead of waiving landing fees for Vision Airlines this year, why not abolish those fees altogether, for all passenger airlines that operate direct flights?
Such an attention-grabbing move could encourage airlines to boost passenger service. That could increase airport income -- and nearby spinoff businesses -- to an extent that would more than offset the loss of the fee revenue.
The future of Toledo Express is more likely to be driven by growth in air-cargo than passenger service. Yet port authority officials note that passenger service still accounts for most of the airport's revenue. The availability of such service remains an important contributor to economic development in northwest Ohio.
So the port authority ought to think big and bold. What more does Toledo Express have to lose?