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Published: Friday, 6/24/2011

Deal would add Toledo-Chicago flight

Port officials OK offer to American Eagle Airlines

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority officials hope a deal they are negotiating that could bring a fourth daily flight back to American Airlines' Toledo-Chicago commuter route will launch a recovery of service at Toledo Express Airport after seven years of precipitous decline.

The port authority's board of directors Thursday approved offering American Eagle Airlines, an American affiliate, $200,000 over a year to add the flight between Toledo Express and O'Hare International Airport, thus beefing up service on the last surviving hub-feeder route at the local airport.

The new flight, arriving at Express at 9:55 a.m. and making its return departure 40 minutes later, would provide Toledo with earlier-morning connections from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and offer a midmorning departure and additional capacity on a route that port officials say is performing well.

Last month, the Toledo-Chicago flights flew more than 80 percent full.

In approving the incentive by a 12-0 vote, with Brian Bucher absent, port directors said that they hope success on the route will attract other airlines to establish or restore flights at Toledo Express, which in the past seven years has lost nearly all of its daily service to major air hubs -- all of it except for the O'Hare service.

Port spokesman Carla Firestone Nowak said afterward that if American approves the deal, the new flight likely would start in late summer or early fall.

The proposal allows the airline to reduce the new flight to four days per week -- skipping Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, which officials say are relatively light days for business travel -- between November and March.

The incentive would be paid on a monthly basis, about $16,700 per month, so that if the airline canceled the new flight before a year passed, it would not be paid for the un-flown months.

A port authority staff report predicts the new round trip will attract 20,000 additional passengers to the airport annually.

Board member Bailey Stanbery said the fourth flight should plug a gap in the local airport's schedule, while colleague Richard Gabel said he believes it will attract enough travelers to sustain its daily operation even through the slower winter months, not just the promised four-days-per-week pledge.

"That success will attract other carriers" to Toledo Express, Mr. Gabel predicted.

Opie Rollison, the port board's chairman, said port President Paul Toth was absent from the board meeting because he was out of town meeting with airline representatives about service development.

"We have five or six initiatives that are going on" to promote either passenger flights or cargo business at Toledo Express, Mr. Rollison said.

Lloyd Jacobs, a board member and president of the University of Toledo, said one way to promote the American Eagle service would be to publicize international destinations available from O'Hare that aren't flown from Detroit, and thus for which the neighboring hub airport has no nonstop service advantage over Toledo Express.

The availability of frequent nonstop flights from Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport to many cities has often been cited as a major reason Toledo air travelers drive to Metro instead of boarding local planes.

Delta Air Lines cited that four-wheeled competition last year when it dropped its Toledo-Detroit feeder route. It briefly substituted a Minneapolis-St. Paul service but yanked those flights early this year because of poor ticket sales.

The Delta pullout left Toledo Express with just the three daily American Eagle flights to Chicago, plus seasonal flights several times per week to Florida tourist destinations on Allegiant Air and DirectAir.

That compounded the losses of previous airlines serving Toledo from cities including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Atlanta, whose pullouts reduced daily flights from more than three dozen seven years ago to less than a dozen by 2010.

The total of 174,476 people who flew in or out of the airport last year was down 4.6 percent from the 182,827 passengers it served in 2009, which had been the lowest in the airport's 55-year history.

The new low also represented a 79 percent decline from the 600,439 travelers who used Toledo Express in 2004, the year before skyrocketing fuel costs and then a plunging travel market prompted airlines to slash routes and schedules, especially to smaller markets such as Toledo.

And Delta's pullout has meant even lower passenger traffic this year, with total passengers from January through May falling to 70,155 from 80,358 during the same five months last year.

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



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