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Published: Monday, 4/21/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

Passenger traffic up despite loss of flights

Airport hopes to gain routes, hold on to grant

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Despite a rise in passenger traffic at Toledo Express, the loss of a flight to Chicago has imperiled a $750,000 federal grant. Despite a rise in passenger traffic at Toledo Express, the loss of a flight to Chicago has imperiled a $750,000 federal grant.
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Despite losing one of its four daily round-trip flights to Chicago, Toledo Express Airport handled a 14 percent passenger-traffic increase during 2014’s first quarter, and the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority’s chief executive remains hopeful that will translate into more flights — not fewer — in the near future.

And time is of the essence to preserve a $750,000 federal grant the port authority obtained in September, 2011, to promote new air-service development at the local airport: The grant expires at year’s end.

Reporting to the airport committee of the port’s board of directors, port President Paul Toth said he met recently with United Airlines representatives to pitch possible service between Toledo and either Newark, N.J., or Washington, and has a meeting scheduled with American Airlines at which he hopes to make a case for flights to Charlotte or Philadelphia.

American’s commuter affiliate, American Eagle Airlines, flies Toledo’s only remaining network-carrier service — three daily flights to and from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

American Eagle increased that route to four flights in late 2011 after the port authority provided a $200,000 annual subsidy, but discontinued the additional flight in January.

Mr. Toth said that retreat was blamed on the route’s performance during 2013, when its planes typically flew about 60 percent full.

But about the same time as the flight was cut, he said, pricing managers from US Airways, with which American Airlines merged in December, revamped the airline’s pricing, resulting in fare cuts for Toledo passengers.

American Eagle’s Toledo flights averaged more than 82 percent full in January through March, handling 18,618 passengers — an 8.19 percent increase over the same period in 2013.

“If you put seats in the market and price them competitively, people will find them,” Mr. Toth told the airport committee. “People do look.”

Overall, 47,164 travelers flew to or from the local airport during the year’s first three months, a 14.44 percent increase. Most (28,077) flew on Allegiant Airlines, which flies several times a week on three Toledo-Florida routes.

In 2013, the local airport posted its first increase in air-traveler volume since 2004.

Ticket data gathered by Sixel Consulting Group for the port authority shows Toledo Express captures just 6 percent of the local air market. Sixty-five percent fly from Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport, while 10 percent use Columbus and 12 percent use Cleveland, Mr. Toth said before noting Cleveland’s share will likely drop with United closing its hub there.

But while Detroit’s selection of nonstop flights will preserve its dominance over Toledo’s airport, Express should be able to compete for travelers who now drive to Metro only to make connections somewhere else, Mr. Toth said.

“A large number of people buy tickets in Detroit for connecting flights,” he said. “Delta has increased prices in Detroit. That should be an opportunity for Toledo.”

The port president said his marketing efforts are focused east because the Toledo Express share of local travelers headed that way is especially weak.

About half of all airfares sold to Toledoans are for trips east, but 83 percent of American Eagle’s Toledo passengers go west, Mr. Toth said, which means new service to eastern hubs should attract some of those travelers.

“We only need 2 percent of the people buying tickets and driving to Detroit to make two 50-seat jets [a day] work,” he said. “It isn’t a big risk. That’s the pitch we’re making to United.”

The $750,000 Small Cities Air Service grant the port authority obtained in 2011 is matched by $250,000 in port authority funds to provide a $1 million revenue guarantee for any airline agreeing to provide new flights.

While the port authority’s original proposal was aimed at getting Frontier Air Lines service to Denver, officials wrote the grant application with terms broad enough for it to apply to other routes, too.

Besides the revenue guarantee, the port authority’s offer includes $525,000 in airport fee waivers and $325,000 in local marketing support over three years — the latter including free advertising in The Blade.

A $400,000 grant from the same federal program that the port authority received in 2006 for a New York route was returned unspent four years later after airline-recruiting efforts failed.

Mr. Toth repeated a mantra that air-passenger service at Toledo Express Airport will survive only if local travelers support it — especially business travelers who typically pay the highest fares and are thus most profitable to airlines.

The port authority, he said has “very, very little effect on air service. It’s the community that makes the difference.”

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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