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Published: Monday, 1/10/2005

December passenger volume at Toledo Express is down 19.3%

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Six years ago, it was withdrawals by Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways from the local market that sent Toledo Express Airport's passenger volume into a tailspin. In 2002 and 2003, fallout from 9/11 terrorism and subsequent airline service cuts sent numbers downward again.

It may be happening again, and an industry analyst warned last week there's no quick fix.

After riding a wave of business from Trans Meridian Airlines' new Las Vegas and Sanford, Fla., routes early this year, passenger volume at Toledo Express took a 19.3 percent hit in December - the steepest of four-straight negative months.

While the December downdraft includes the impact of widespread Christmas flight cancellations because of bad weather and computer problems at Comair, it occurred before the Jan. 5th end of Chicago Express Airlines' local service.

Chicago Express, operating as ATA Connection, dropped its popular Toledo-Chicago route and several others as part of bankruptcy-induced retrenching at parent American Trans Air. During December, ATA Connection flew 5,832 passengers in or out of Toledo.

The full-year passenger volume, 600,439 travelers to or from Toledo Express, was 2.32 percent higher than the 586,809 who used the local airport in 2003.

But that increase was built during 2004's first seven months. August was close to flat, and from September through November, passenger traffic was down by about 9 percent each month compared with 2003.

The year-end reversal closely followed the July 31 end of US Airways'0 Express service between Toledo and Pittsburgh.

Along with ATA Connection's pullout, Toledo Express lost TMA's twice-weekly Las Vegas charters last week, but that will be offset partially by a service increase on the Sanford route.

"This is a tough, tough time," Paul Toth, airport director for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said last week. "But we've been down before, and we've gotten back up. We'll find our niche. And if there's a door that's even cracked open, we're banging on it as hard as we can."

Jim Hartung, the port authority's president, said Toledo could end up having to provide subsidies, as other cities already have done, to attract new airline routes - though he hopes it won't have to come to that.

"We're dealing with a very volatile industry," Mr. Hartung said. "Cities are losing service, cities are gaining service. Airlines are bargaining with cities for service - it's a whole new dimension. Toledo has to compete with other cities and other airports, for new service."

And Michael Boyd, an airline industry analyst from Evergreen, Colo., who has consulted with the port authority about airport development, said the current slide is not for lack of effort on port officials' behalf.

Kris Nichter, the port authority's air service development manager, "is at the top of the pile" among people doing the job he does, Mr. Boyd said.

Except for Southwest Airlines, the entire airline industry was hammered in 2004 by high fuel prices, Mr. Boyd said. Southwest escaped the fuel crunch because it had "hedged" its supply - it bought fuel contracts in advance at prices that turned out to be much lower than the market, something other airlines lacked the cash reserves to do.

But anyone waiting for Southwest to come to Toledo is, by his estimation, waiting for the Great Pumpkin. With Southwest already set up in Detroit and AirTran Airways having tested the Toledo waters twice, he said, the discount-airline route is not Toledo Express's salvation.

"You're just in a situation where you have to try to add on to what you already have," the analyst said.

In November, Mr. Nichter received an 11 percent salary raise, from $52,000 to $57,705. Port spokesman Brian Schwartz said the raise was granted after a review found that Mr. Nichter's pay was below 80 percent of the industry range, so it was increased to the 80 percent level.

"What we do is what airports across the country are looking to do," Mr. Hartung said. "We've gotten a lot of calls, and a lot of compliments, from other airports. [The loss of] ATA wasn't because Toledo failed as a market. What happened with ATA was pure bankruptcy."

US Airways too was in bankruptcy when its commuter affiliate pulled out of the Toledo market as part of a drastic cut of operations at its Pittsburgh hub.

On the up side, Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines plans to add a fourth daily round-trip between Toledo and Atlanta early next month.

Delta Connection, which also includes Comair service to Cincinnati, is now by far the busiest brand at Toledo Express. The 223,517 passengers who flew to or from either Atlanta or Cincinnati last year accounted for 37.2 percent of the airport's travelers.

That number would have been higher if not for Comair's Christmas mess, which included weather-related cancellations in Cincinnati Dec. 23 and a shutdown Dec. 25 when its crew dispatching computers failed. The airline canceled 29 of its Toledo flights during December, including all seven on Christmas and all eight the day after.

Several local travel agencies said Friday that Delta Connection's Toledo service - along with Delta's recent announcement of a simplified and reduced fare structure for tickets bought at the counter or within a few days before traveling - should keep the local airport from suffering for too long.

While Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport has the edge when it comes to schedule selection, "our customers want Toledo whenever possible," said Sue McCloskey, vice president for travel agency and member services at AAA Northwest Ohio.

"We're selling a lot of Delta out of Toledo," she said. "A lot of what Delta has done will help the business traveler."

And Gina Garwood, president of Atlas World Travel in Sylvania Township, said travelers should not take recent service cuts to mean good deals are no longer available from Toledo Express.

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



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