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Published: Monday, 6/20/2011

COMMENTARY

Akron-Canton, Flint airports are flying high

BY THOMAS WALTON

What if I told you there is an airport in Ohio that offers fares that match or beat those offered at the major international airport just up the road?

What if I mentioned that five commercial airlines there offer daily departures to 11 destinations, even though the much larger airport is just 40 miles away?

And what if I explained that this smaller, regional airport is totally self-sufficient and does all this without any taxpayer support?

You'd no doubt consider me delusional, and while you might be correct on general principle, such a place does in fact exist -- just not around here.

It's known in the trade as CAK, which is the three-letter designator for Akron-Canton Airport in northeast Ohio. You would think CAK has a major problem geographically. It's less than an hour's drive from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. That would imply an obvious competitive disadvantage.

Sound familiar? Toledo Express Airport is less than an hour's drive from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. But the similarities between CAK and TOL end there. Akron-Canton thrives, while passenger service at Toledo Express is in a death spiral.

Akron-Canton offers nonstop flights to Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa, Philadelphia, Denver, Washington, Fort Myers, Boston, New York, Charlotte, and Chicago, generally at fares competitive with or better than those of flights out of Cleveland. CAK's Web site claims it offers the lowest average fares in Ohio.

Last year, more than 1.5 million passengers flew into or out of CAK -- an 8 percent gain over 2009.

Toledo Express is served by just one airline offering daily flights. American Airlines flies three times a day to and from Chicago. Allegiant Air flies to Florida, but not every day. Delta Airlines pulled its last Toledo service in March.

Express does a substantial cargo business, thanks to BAX Global, but passenger traffic is fading away. Just 174,476 people flew into or out of Express in 2010, down 4.6 percent from 2009. That's the fewest in the airport's 55-year history.

Let's ponder that once more: 1.5 million passengers last year at Akron-Canton; fewer than 175,000 at Toledo. With the loss of Delta, Express' numbers are sure to fall again this year.

A struggling economy and escalating aviation fuel prices get some of the blame, but somehow Akron-Canton's passenger numbers keep going up.

For travelers to whom cost is a major consideration, Express becomes even less attractive. A round-trip ticket from Toledo to Atlanta, connecting in Chicago, cost a staggering $722 ($765 with fees) a few days ago.

But a round-trip ticket from Akron-Canton to Atlanta, with a Charlotte connection, cost just $440, or $480 with fees. That's significantly less than half of the Toledo fare, and it even beat the cost of Cleveland Hopkins' best one-stop flight to Atlanta, via Charlotte: $530 with fees.

Airport revenue pays the bills at CAK, not the taxpayers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Akron-Canton is also the only commercial airport in Ohio governed by its own specifically dedicated airport authority.

Toledo Express is governed by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, for whom the busy seaport seems a priority. But while the ships continue to call, the planes keep flying away.

You want more disturbing news? CAK is not alone. Bishop International Airport in Flint, Mich., about 70 miles north of Detroit Metro, also is governed by its own airport board and it too is flourishing. Five commercial airlines serve Flint, offering 25 daily arrivals and departures to eight cities. The average percentage of seats that were filled on each flight increased in 2010 to more than 80 percent.

Like CAK's in Ohio, Bishop's Web site says it offers the lowest average fares in Michigan. Unlike Akron-Canton, about 27 percent of Flint's revenues come from a tax levy.

Would a separate airport authority work here? Should it include not only Lucas County but also Wood and Fulton counties?

Good questions, and Toledo attorney R. Michael Frank, a former member of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority board, acknowledges he doesn't have the answers. But he'd like to see the idea of a separate authority at least investigated.

"I know that what we have now is not working," Mr. Frank says. "I see a lot of passion for the seaport but none for the airport." The community can try something new and risk failure, he adds, or do nothing and ensure it.

There is another question worth posing. BAX has been a faithful partner, even though its daily flights to and from Express have declined during the recession. So why not simply concentrate on the cargo side of the airport and forget passenger traffic?

Because Toledo is better than that. No metropolitan area our size can sustain itself indefinitely, especially among global economic development players, if its airport is considered minor-league.

Akron-Canton looks to the north and calls itself the "preferred alternative to Cleveland Hopkins Airport." Toledo Express looks north to Detroit Metro and calls itself unlucky. Maybe that's the problem.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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