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Published: Thursday, 6/28/2007

Port board to consider hiring airport consultant

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority's board of directors today will consider hiring a consultant to assist its air service development effort at Toledo Express Airport on a contingency-fee basis.

A proposed resolution authorizes agency staff to negotiate a contract with Sixel Consulting Group Inc. of Eugene, Ore., under which Sixel would be paid as much as $2 "for each new enplaned passenger resulting from its recruitment efforts to initiate new service or expansion of service by an existing airline."

"It's a fairly innovative solution that we were able to seek out," said Kris Nichter, the port authority's director of marketing, business development, and community affairs. "Consultants need to be more innovative if they want to work with small airports that have limited budgets."

Just how much Sixel Consulting would be paid remains to be determined and could vary depending on how big a role it played in attracting a particular carrier to Toledo or persuading an existing carrier to expand operations, Mr. Nichter said.

Payment would come from airport revenue, he added.

"I'm sure there isn't anybody else in the consulting business who is doing this," said Mark Sixel, president of his namesake company. "We have similar contracts with about six other airports, most of them in the Midwest. Airports like it because they only pay if they get results. I like it because it spreads my income out over time."

The proposal arrives on the port board's agenda in the midst of a continuing slide in passenger business at Toledo Express.

During 2007's first five months, just 137,056 travelers have gotten on or off planes at the local airport - 24.1 percent fewer than during the same period in 2006, which turned out to be Express' worst year since 1967.

Mr. Nichter said Toledo Express' numbers continue to slide because of airline service cuts, particularly on Delta Connection routes.

Delta's commuter affiliates, who combined represent the busiest carrier at Toledo, have reduced local service by nearly a quarter during the past year and business was off by more than 12 percent during May.

But traffic on carriers that haven't cut service recently, including American Eagle, also was down last month.

Rana Meyer is one traveler who has stopped using Toledo Express in recent years.

Miss Meyer, a New Yorker whose brother and parents live in the Toledo area, said she began using Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport exclusively after a New York-Toledo trip with a Chicago connection was disrupted by a snowstorm in Chicago a few winters ago.

"I used to do the change-planes to Toledo thing, but it got to be such a pain - and there's always the risk of missing a connection," she said.

"When my parents are coming to see me, it's the same situation."

Miss Meyer said she eagerly awaits the potential nonstop New York-Toledo service for which the port authority last summer obtained a $400,000 federal air service development grant.

Mr. Nichter said the time it is taking for the port authority to find a carrier to fly the route, even with guaranteed revenue, illustrates how difficult it is right now for smaller airports to develop new service.

Particularly problematic, Mr. Nichter said, are destinations like New York's LaGuardia Airport, which have federal caps on how many flights can take off and land per hour.

Officials from Toledo Express and other smaller airports are promoting a bill in Congress that would require some of those take-off and landing "slots" be set aside for their markets, he said.

"As recently as 45 days ago, we thought we were close to announcing the route," Mr. Nichter continued.

But the airline that would have been involved suddenly changed course and decided to initiate service on other routes instead.

Mr. Nichter declined to identify the airline involved.

Mr. Sixel said American Airlines recently considered establishing several LaGuardia routes from the Midwest, but then changed plans. He did not know if Toledo was among the destinations considered.

Mr. Nichter said he hopes formerly bankrupt airlines will soon reverse their recent trend of cutting service, and that airports like Toledo will be the benefactors.

"This industry was very, very sick, and it's just now coming back to health," he said.

And Mr. Sixel said he wouldn't be willing to work for the Toledo airport on contingency if he didn't think growth potential existed.

The federal grant, announced in August, is valid for two years, Mr. Nichter said.

"We are still hopeful that by the middle of next year, we can still have service" to New York, he said. "We're working on other leads, too."

The port authority also has been promoting Toledo Express to area businesses under a "Fly Local, Buy Local" campaign that stresses the local airport's economic contribution to the region.

"It's up to the community to support the air service we have," Mr. Nichter said. "We don't expect to get 100 percent of their flights. Just to get 25 percent, 35 percent would mean really good things for us."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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