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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2010

Changes in fees weighed to boost Toledo Express traffic

Passenger airlines serving Toledo Express Airport soon could pay a fixed per-passenger charge instead of rents and fees based on aircraft weight if the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority adopts a recommendation from its president.

After outlining the proposal to the port's airport committee last week, agency head Paul Toth also said a renewed effort must be made to urge local businesses to book at least some of their corporate travel through the local airport, without which the remaining network-carrier service at Express could be lost.

Last year, the port's board of directors approved a flat fee of $5 per enplaned passenger, in lieu of other charges, to airlines providing nonstop service to any destination that carries 20 or more passengers per day at average fares lower than those at competing airports within 100 miles of Toledo Express.

Mr. Toth last week proposed to the airport committee that the airline fee be set at $10 per passenger for all other air service.

The committee passed the proposal along to the full port authority board of directors, which meets on Thursday.

"Quite honestly, this doesn't cover our costs, but it's the only way to keep the airlines," Mr. Toth told the airport committee.

The arrangement also would give port officials latitude to waive the fee for airlines starting routes, the port president said, though he predicted the local airport eventually will have to eliminate all such fees.

"That's really where airports like Toledo Express are going to have to be to survive," Mr. Toth said. "At $10, we're already at the high end."

Delta Air Lines, which last month dropped its four daily round trips between Toledo Express and Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport while introducing twice-daily service to and from Minneapolis-St. Paul, paid about $14 per passenger in airport fees last year, Mr. Toth said, while American Eagle, which flies thrice-daily round trips between Toledo and Chicago, paid about $11 per passenger.

Those two airlines' five daily flights are the foundation from which Mr. Toth hopes to rebuild network air service at Toledo Express that has been devastated by airline cutbacks over the past five years.

Though the local airport has met with some modest successes attracting scheduled-charter carriers that fly several times per week to vacation destinations, the cutbacks have gutted service available locally to business travelers, who in general already had preferred driving to the Detroit airport for its greater selection of flight schedules and nonstop destinations.

And Mr. Toth spoke gravely on Friday about the 35 percent load factor Delta reported last month on the new Twin Cities route, saying that weak passenger traffic cannot sustain the service.

"Before that [Toledo Express] lobby is made into a bowling alley, we need to [have] some very out-of-the-box thinking on this," Jerry Chabler, the airport committee's chairman, said. "The Minneapolis numbers are almost tragic."

Mr. Toth said the port authority this week will introduce free parking at Toledo Express for Twin Cities-bound travelers, and on Friday presented to the airport committee a draft 2011-2012 Air Service Development Plan outlining how agency staff will lobby airlines for new or expanded service to Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, and Washington.

But such service will only grow if existing routes thrive, the port president said, and the key is "engaging our business community" to fly Toledo Express whenever the local airport offers fares and scheduling that fit business travelers' needs. Too often, he said, air travelers fail to factor the extra drive time and check-in and security-clearance delays involved in flying from Detroit when deciding how to schedule their flights.

If just 6 to 7 percent of corporate travel from Toledo businesses flew out of Toledo Express, Mr. Toth said, "it'd make all the difference in the world to us.

"But if we lose our service, we lose our identity as a community, and economic development gets a whole lot harder," he said.

Matt Sapara, the port authority's director of operations, agreed that foreign companies and investors to which the agency has been pitching development projects see the local airport as a valuable asset and status symbol for Toledo.

Mr. Toth said he plans to focus his local lobbying efforts on the Regional Growth Partnership and the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, two organizations whose boards comprise community business leaders. He dismissed lobbying of individual businesses' corporate travel managers as "been there, done that," and said advertising has been ineffective too.

"We could spend a million dollars on advertising, and the return on investment would be so far upside down it wouldn't be funny," Mr. Toth said."We spent $40,000 on Minneapolis-St. Paul and we saw how that did."

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



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