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Published: Monday, 3/1/2010

Data sought on Toledo fliers

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority consultant will survey local travel agencies and corporate travel offices during coming weeks to get fresh information on where Toledoans fly and which airports they use.

Data from the survey, during which Sixel Consulting will sample ticket bookings, will be presented to air carriers that potentially could add or expand service at struggling Toledo Express Airport, port President Paul Toth said.

But Mr. Toth, who was the agency's airports director for nearly seven years starting in early 2000, cautioned port authority directors last week that Toledo Express will remain a tough sell for cash-strapped airlines. The future of its passenger service will depend on community support, the port president said.

"It's going to take a revenue guarantee for an airline to come into this market," Mr. Toth said.

He reported on the survey plan after Bernard "Pete" Culp, a port board member, implored his fellow directors to lobby local business executives and leaders of community groups to use Toledo Express when possible for air travel.

"At least we can get information from them as to why they won't support the airport," Mr. Culp said.

Colleague Richard Gabel, who as a vice president of the International Longshoremen's Union travels extensively and arranges travel for others, said Toledo Express' biggest problem is high fares.

"I could maybe justify $45 more, $50 more," but airfare from Toledo often is $100-plus more than it is in competing airports in Detroit, Columbus, or Cleveland, Mr.

Gabel said. Fares are sometimes lower in Toledo, he said, but that rarely lasts very long.

Mr. Toth said the current business model for American Eagle and Delta Connection service in Toledo - the only two traditional "network" carriers still serving the local airport - is to charge business travelers top dollar and let fare-conscious vacationers drive to bigger airports.

He also recalled that when AirTran Airways was driving a passenger boom at Toledo Express early last decade and filling most of its seats, it still pulled out of the local airport because not enough business travelers were buying its higher-priced tickets.

"The airlines are not going to reduce their prices until competitive forces force them to. I could reduce the airport fees to nothing, and it wouldn't change," he said, adding that airline fare analysts have described Toledo as one of the most price-sensitive air-travel markets in the United States.

The last ticket survey of Toledo travel, done about 10 years ago, estimated that 80 percent of the local air market flew out of Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport, port authority spokesman Carla Firestone said.

"It's probably more like 95 percent now," Ms. Firestone said. "We don't need Sixel to tell us that, but what they will tell us is where all those people are going."

The survey will cost the port authority about $6,000, the spokesman said. Mr. Toth said he has meetings planned with "four or five airlines" during a conference in June.

Airlines have slashed service to Toledo in recent years as they reduced operations, first to offset higher fuel costs and then a travel-market crash resulting from the United States' depressed economy. Daily flights from the local airport have fallen from more than three dozen in 2004 to just six now, plus flights several times per week to Florida on DirectAir and Allegiant Air.

The result was a record low for passenger travel out of Toledo Express last year. The 182,827 passengers who got on or off planes at the local airport was 71 fewer than traveled there in 1955, the year Express opened, and was 27 percent below its passenger volume in 2008.

Mr. Toth reported that Delta plans to add a fifth daily Delta Connection flight between Toledo and Detroit in April. That still leaves Toledo with just that route and two daily flights to Chicago on American Eagle, plus the Florida tourist flights.

Previous studies have shown New York to be a top air destination for Toledoans, and airport officials used that information in August, 2006, to secure a $400,000 federal grant to subsidize a route there. But efforts to persuade existing airlines to start the service failed, and last year the port authority lost $119,000 marketing a proposed Toledo-Newark, N.J., service when the start-up company involved abandoned its plans.

Opie Rollison, the port board's chairman, said that revenue from cargo operations should be used to subsidize passenger service if need be.

"The airport is critical to the community," he said. "We have to fight to the death to make sure that's there."

But Mr. Toth warned that the port authority cannot, by itself, reverse Toledo Express' fortunes.

"This really needs to be a community-driven effort," the port president said. "I've sat in every CEO's office in this city when I was airport director and basically got nowhere."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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