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Published: Friday, 6/22/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Port officials again urge travelers to use Express

Air-service revival called thorny issue

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Passenger business at the Toledo Express Airport has declined for eight straight years, the last three marking all-time lows since its 1955 opening. Passenger business at the Toledo Express Airport has declined for eight straight years, the last three marking all-time lows since its 1955 opening.
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Calling air-service revival at Toledo Express Airport a "chicken-and-egg problem," a Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority consultant made a renewed call Friday for Toledo travelers to use the local airport whenever possible, and on other occasions use local travel agents so their trips are statistically credited to the Toledo market.

Jamie Kogutek, an air service strategy and development consultant with Sixel Consulting Group, told the port authority board of directors' airport committee that smaller carriers such as Allegiant Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Virgin America have the aviation industry's strongest growth potential and are the best prospects for expanding service at small, struggling airports like Toledo Express.

But beyond wooing airlines, Toledo needs corporate "champions" who are willing to devote at least part of their business travel budgets to local air service if it is to be sustained, the consultant said.

Toledo Express had about 7 percent of the local air-travel market in 2009. More than 80 percent flew from Detroit; the rest were scattered among other airports.

That percentage has surely fallen since then because of the loss of feeder service to Detroit, Mr. Kogutek said.

"We can do better than 7 percent or the probably lower number that it is today. If we can get to 15, 20, 25 percent, the airport will be busy, it will be successful, and the community will feel like we have an airport we can use to get wherever we need to go."

James Tuschman, an airport committee member, said that would "depend on commitments we heretofore have been unable to achieve."

Passenger business at the Toledo airport has declined for eight straight years, the last three marking all-time lows since its 1955 opening.

Current airline industry economics make the Toledo Express service slump "a very difficult problem to solve," Mr. Tuschman said before inviting critics of how the airport has been run to offer their own ideas about what could be done to reverse its fortunes.

Mr. Kogutek gave his presentation on the day after the port authority reported that Vision Airlines -- a longtime charter carrier that launched a small scheduled-service, vacation-oriented network centered on Myrtle Beach, S.C., three weeks ago -- plans to discontinue twice-weekly flights to Toledo after June 29.

The consultant said he was surprised both by the short lead time Vision gave between its announcement of the service to Toledo and seven other cities and the first flights and by the short fuse it apparently had for ticket sales to reach its sales goals. Mr. Kogutek said he is curious to know if Vision will drop service to any other cities. Airline representatives did not respond Friday to interview requests.

John Trudel, an Archbold resident who attended the committee meeting, said that when he attempted Thursday night to get a refund or different accommodation for Vision tickets he holds for travel in July, he was told no formal decision about the Toledo service had been made.

Mr. Trudel said he was also disappointed that the port authority board lacks representation from counties neighboring Lucas County, since they are part of the Toledo Express market, and remarked that leadership in promoting the airport could start with Toledo Mayor Mike Bell's office, which has used Detroit's airport for recent trips to China.

Port Authority President Paul Toth said that during a recent Toledo trade mission to China, he booked a connecting itinerary from Toledo Express that saved him $1,200 and got him to Beijing just ahead of other Toledo delegation members who departed for Detroit Metro Airport at about the same time he left home.

One of the key challenges in promoting Toledo Express, Mr. Toth said, is convincing business travelers that once they factor in the additional costs and time associated with driving to Detroit, the local airport is often a good deal even if airfare out of Detroit is cheaper.

He described local corporate leaders who had accompanied him to a meeting nearly a decade ago with AirTran Airways representatives as "bobbleheads" for having nodded in affirmation when AirTran requested business-travel commitments to its Toledo-Atlanta route, but then buying nearly all their tickets on competitor Delta Air Lines.

AirTran pulled out of Toledo in 2004, saying higher-fare business travel on the route was insufficient. Delta dropped its Toledo-Atlanta service soon thereafter, and flights at Toledo Express have eroded ever since.

Toledo's only current network service is four weekday round trips -- fewer on weekends -- on American Eagle to Chicago. Although those flights have run only about two-thirds full of late, Mr. Kogutek said their passengers' average fares have been high enough to make Toledo the 14th-highest-yielding station on the American Airlines network.

While rising fares may be unpopular with travelers, he said, it's "overall a good thing to have a stable airline industry," which higher fares promote.

And a possible merger of American and US Airways could benefit Toledo, the consultant said, because American's positive experience with the Toledo-Chicago route could result in new flights to Washington if American gained US Airways' strong presence in that market.

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



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