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Published: Sunday, 5/19/2013

Express distress

New academic study confirms what Toledo area air travelers already know: The number of passenger flights out of Toledo Express Airport plummeted by three-fourths between 2007 and 2012. The report warns that our local airport “may be at risk for future loss of all network carrier air service.”A

This dismal state of affairs is not primarily a product of poor management by the airport or the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which operates Toledo Express. Rather, it reflects consolidation and brutal competition within the U.S. airline industry in recent years — abetted by too-permissive federal deregulation — as well as the more general economic effects of the Great Recession.

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Toledo Express cannot abandon passenger service if it is to meet its obligations to the metropolitan area. But the study expresses the challenges the airport faces merely to maintain its current level of service, much less to expand it.

The report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation, released this month, examines the trends and market forces that are shaping small-community air service in the United States. The study notes that although Toledo Express serves a metropolitan area with a “significant population size,” it is just 50 miles from Detroit Metro Airport.

When Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest Airlines, the report says, Delta made Detroit Metro one of its major “hub” airports. That is, it routes large numbers of passengers through Detroit to make connecting flights to “spoke” cities.

With a Detroit hub, the MIT researchers say, Delta “saw no reason to continue its historically frequent service” to Toledo Express. In 2007, more than 6,300 passenger flights left the Toledo airport; Delta accounted for one-third of them.

Last year, by contrast, only 1,600 passenger flights departed from Toledo Express; of them, 1,345 were daily American Airlines flights to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The study concludes Toledo Express may be in danger of losing the American service, “given its close proximity” to Detroit Metro.

The only other appreciable passenger service from Toledo Express is provided by the low-cost carrier Allegiant Air, which offers largely seasonal flights to three Florida vacation destinations. The MIT report observes that Allegiant, “perhaps smelling the blood in the water, has already entered [Toledo Express] to ... attempt to hasten American’s exit.”

Toledo Express officials say Allegiant’s expanded presence is boosting passenger traffic at the airport. But the loss of the regular service to its Chicago hub that American offers from Toledo surely would not be to the advantage of the airport or this community.

Given the sharp decline in flights out of Toledo Express, it’s not surprising that passenger traffic at the airport reached another annual low in 2012 — the ninth straight yearly decline. Airport officials have given up on a Denver route they had hoped to add.

Businesses and residents in this region need Toledo Express to remain as a provider of cargo service — which also took a huge hit last year when BAX Global Inc. halted its air cargo operations at the airport — and as a host of the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing. Continued passenger service at the airport will strengthen these presences.

Airport officials express hope, albeit fading, that it still can take advantage of a federal grant to promote new passenger service at Toledo Express. Other public aid and private contributions also are pledged to that effort.

We continue to believe that the airport would make itself more attractive to carriers by waiving its landing fees. Airport officials argue that local employers must throw more of their travel business to Toledo Express to help keep it in the game.

The U.S. airline industry’s restructuring over the past decade has boosted carriers’ financial health by reducing overcapacity, the MIT study acknowledges. But it is also restricting choice and often increasing fares for air travelers, while impairing some local economies, including Toledo’s.

Although it might seem unthinkable in this political climate, federal re-regulation of the commercial airline industry is needed to serve the public interest, promote economic development, and aid communities, such as Toledo, that have become air-transport deserts. More than three decades of deregulation have brought economic instability and unfair restrictions on an essential public service: passenger air travel.

Toledo Express still offers ample advantages for area air travelers. It’s closer than Detroit Metro. Parking and getting through the terminal are easier. Check-in and security lines are shorter.

But the MIT study makes clear that broader forces are arrayed against the local airport. 

Toledo Express needs to keep trying to attract passengers, but for now there may be little that it can do in the face of such fierce headwinds.



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