The decision by a small Georgia-based airline to pull out of Toledo Express Airport last month -- just four weeks after it started flying there -- raises new questions about the future of passenger service at the city-owned airport, and about who should run the facility. The proper response is neither panic nor bureaucratic defensiveness, but rather a willingness to learn from comparable airports that are achieving greater success.
Vision Airlines' brief venture providing direct flights between Toledo and the resort town of Myrtle Beach, S.C., collapsed because of lousy ticket sales. The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates the airport, waived landing and terminal fees for the low-fare carrier, and provided advertising and marketing support.
Such help wasn't enough to prevent Vision from joining seven previous airlines that have deserted Toledo Express in the past decade. Passenger traffic has plummeted, contributing to the airport's financial losses and forcing the port authority to subsidize Toledo Express with money from its other operations.
Authority officials now warn that the airport may be lucky to hang onto the passenger business that remains: four commuter flights on weekdays to and from Chicago, and service to two Florida tourist destinations. Spending more to promote the airport's passenger service could amount to throwing good money after bad, they say.
Such a bleak outlook may ultimately prove justified. It seems more productive for Toledo Express to focus on building its cargo traffic. But because the airport continues to get federal aid to support its passenger service, and because such service still has the potential to generate economic growth in the region, airport operators may not want to surrender to defeatism in this line of business just yet.
Port authority officials note that more than 80 percent of Toledo-area air travelers use Detroit Metro Airport -- some estimates are as high as 95 percent -- while fewer than 7 percent opt for Toledo Express. Yet their suggestions that local business and leisure travelers should feel obligated to support the Toledo airport, despite less-convenient flight schedules, poor connections, and frequently higher fares, are not likely to gain much assent among fliers, nor should they.
Authority officials need to look at similar regional airports that attract more passengers and carriers for lessons that might apply here. Why is the Akron-Canton airport, which is closer to Cleveland's airport than Toledo Express is to Detroit Metro, thriving? Regional airports in Dayton, in Flint, Mich., and in Fort Wayne, Ind., also are doing better than the local airport.
Does Toledo Express need to lower or even eliminate the fees it charges all airlines? Offer other incentives for expanded service? Strive to cut operating costs even further? Provide more passenger amenities? Or would such measures merely aggravate the airport's financial miseries?
Port authority officials say Toledo's market is different somehow. But it is not uniquely susceptible to such challenges as airline industry deregulation and consolidation, the dominance of hub airports, rising jet-fuel prices, and shrinking federal subsidies. Other airports in similarly sized communities are coping better. What accounts for that?
The decline in passenger service at Toledo Express also has renewed calls to remove the airport from port authority control and create a new, independent authority. The original rationale for placing the airport within the port authority -- that the arrangement would promote the integration of Toledo Express with the region's land and water-based transportation assets -- remains defensible.
Even if the city were interested in running the airport, there is no guarantee it would do a better job. But the authority's recent record of managing Toledo Express suggests that other options at least should be explored.
Such a weighing of alternatives assumes, of course, that the port authority wants to continue to operate Toledo Express. Amid all the unresolved questions that surround the airport, that one ought to be addressed first.