KING / BLADE Enlarge
Fifty years ago today, a pajama salesman from New York City stepped off an airplane at Toledo Express Airport and into the history books.
But Melvin Marks, from the Queens neighborhood of Kew Gardens, was the new airport's first passenger only because bad weather the day before prevented any planes from landing.
Welcoming ceremonies arranged for the previous day were canceled, not rescheduled, after the first scheduled flights into Toledo Express aborted their landings and continued their routes toward Chicago and Cleveland.
That inauspicious beginning was perhaps appropriate for an airport that opened during an era of great optimism about Toledo's aviation future, but has never quite lived up to the forecasts - and for most of its existence has operated in the shadow of Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport.
Over its entire history, Toledo Express has had fewer passengers - about 24 million - than the more than 32 million who flew through its Detroit neighbor last year alone.
Although that disparity exists in large part because of Metro's post-deregulation status as a major hub for Northwest Airlines and its corporate predecessors, studies have shown that a majority of Toledo's local air traffic market has preferred to drive up to Metro to take advantage of its nonstop flights to a wide array of destinations, larger aircraft, cheaper fares, and greater schedule selection.
Officials at the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which since 1972 has managed Express under a long-term lease from the City of Toledo, plan no special events today to mark the anniversary of the airport's first passenger.
Brian Schwartz, a port authority spokesman, said some form of commemoration is likely within a few weeks, with the event citing as well that 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of the port authority's creation.
Toledo officials earned the praise of President Dwight Eisenhower for building its new airport, which originally cost $3.8 million, without federal aid - though it did so only after an application for 50-50 federal funding became mired in bureaucratic proceedings and the city decided to move forward on its own.
The airport ceremonially opened on Oct. 31, 1954 - a date chosen in hopes of beating winter weather but marked by cold, steely skies and snow showers. An estimated 35,000 people clogged roads leading to the site to view the festivities.
The facility would not be ready for actual air operations until more than two months later, and then fog and mist postponed the scheduled Jan. 5 opening by one day.
The city's previous main airport, then known as Toledo Municipal and later renamed Metcalf Field, was hobbled by short runways that limited the size and weight of aircraft that could use it. Railroad tracks on two sides hamstrung its expansion potential, which became a key consideration in selecting the site 17 miles west of downtown Toledo where the new airport was built.
At the dedication, Mayor Ollie Czelusta called Toledo Express "a precious victory for the countless interested citizens of Toledo who gave unstintingly of their valuable time, energies, and efforts so that our city could get back on the country's aviation maps."
"Toledo is now in the forefront, whether it be transportation by land, water, or air," cheered Joseph Nuffer, the president of the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce, who called Express' dedication "one of the great milestones in the transportation history of Toledo."
Air travel to or from Toledo jumped from 126,688 in 1954 to 186,620 in 1955 after the new airport opened.
But even then, Toledo was vulnerable to the shifting sands of airline service: Schedule cuts by two carriers late that year caused a decline in passenger business during the holiday travel season. Volume grew only slightly the next year, and then rose in fits and starts for years after that.
And in 1958, officials in Michigan's Wayne County dedicated an $8.3 million modernization of the newly renamed Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport, making it the nation's first inland airport open to commercial jets. Airlines that previously served the Detroit market at Willow Run Airport near Ypsilanti quickly shifted their operations.
Before long, coverage of Toledo Express ran heavily toward reports of Toledo officials petitioning federal regulators to increase Toledo routes, and lamenting the local airport's loss of business to jet flights from Metro.
Several predictions during the 1960s and early 1970s that Express eventually would gain international service, once Detroit reached its capacity, never came true as the Wayne County airport continued to expand. A 1971 forecast showed Toledo Express handling 1.16 million passengers by 1975 - a number it has yet to attain - and topping 2.4 million by 1985.
Instead, passenger volume grew to 677,374 in 1978 - the last full year in which airline routes and fares were regulated by the federal government - then dropped slightly in 1979 before plunging to 421,511 by 1982.
Since then, passenger traffic at Toledo Express has surged and waned as airlines introduced or withdrew service. The 1978 passenger record was eclipsed in 1997 because of a popular Toledo-Orlando route that discount carrier AirTran Airways introduced in 1996, but then yanked in 1998 after merging with ValuJet Airlines.
AirTran returned in 2000 with an Atlanta service, and Toledo appeared on its way to another air travel record in 2001 before a Comair strike and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sent the passenger count into another tailspin that AirTran reinforced by leaving for a second time the following spring.
And during the last four months, US Airways Express and ATA Connection, whose parent airlines have staggered into bankruptcy because of soaring fuel costs, have left the Toledo market.
The Toledo Express passenger terminal underwent a $4.8 million upgrading during the mid-1970s to provide additional counter, waiting-room, and baggage-handling space. Further remodeling was done during the early 1990s to brighten its main passenger concourse, and later that decade a dingy corridor with two boarding gates was replaced by the three-gate East Concourse.
Airport officials are contemplating a new round of renovation and reconfiguration for the passenger terminal, although no major contracts have been awarded.
Toledo Express enjoyed a major boom in air cargo activity after Burlington Air Express, now BAX Global, opened a sorting hub at the airport in 1991. But that business too dropped in recent years as BAX shifted some freight to trucks and reconfigured some of its flights away from the hub model in favor of direct service in high-volume markets.
And the nighttime cargo flights forced the port authority to spend millions of dollars in federal funds to buy houses close to the airport and fit others with noise-reducing doors, windows, and insulation.
In an interview yesterday, Ralph "Chip" Hannon, the airport's manager during the 1970s, said Metro's proximity and the airlines' development of the hub-and-spoke system after the industry's 1979 deregulation have been key factors stunting Express's passenger growth.
"It's an age-old battle," Mr. Hannon said. "The lack of non-stop service to many cities is a big problem. People are still afraid, to this day, of making that [plane] change."
Metro's location on the southwest side of Detroit hasn't helped, Mr. Hannon noted. In cities where secondary airports have thrived, they're usually on the far side of town from the traditional airport, meaning travelers no longer have to fight traffic to get there. And Metro made itself even closer to Toledo in 2002, when officials opened the midfield McNamara Terminal and the Eureka Road entrance on the south side of the airport.
"Detroit built a new airport that's easy to get to, and it's not going to go away," agreed Michael Boyd, an airline industry analyst based in Evergreen, Colo., who said estimates of air traffic often have been based on false assumptions that current industry patterns and travel trends will continue indefinitely.
Toledo's passenger growth during the 1970s was sustained, Mr. Boyd said, by government regulation under which "airlines were forced to fly there with airplanes you could never make money with today."
Mr. Boyd said Toledo should continue to fill a valuable niche in the air travel market, but its future is unlikely to include the presence of a major discount airline like Southwest, whose arrival at similar airports in places like Manchester, N.H., and Providence, R.I., sent their passenger counts skyward.
"Southwest ain't coming to the party now. They're not doing small-city starts any more," Mr. Boyd said. "AirTran's been and gone. You're just in a city where you have to try to add on to what you already have. Toledo is a strong opportunity for the traditional air carriers, but it doesn't fit into the low-fare model."
Contact David Patch at: