Toledo Express cited as nation's fastest growing


Toledo Express Airport officials and industry experts had been predicting the airport's turnaround, but even their loftiest projections didn't forecast that the airport would be the fastest growing in North America.

It was - at least for the first three months of this year.

The trade group Airports Council International has reported that Toledo Express' passenger traffic grew nearly 55 percent in the first quarter of 2001 - tops out of 155 airports measured in North America. It was 20 points higher than the nearest competitor, the airport in Albany, N.Y.

“People call it the Rust Belt, but Toledo is not Rust Belt. It's growth belt,” said Colorado-based aviation consultant Michael Boyd.

The report, announced by airport Director Paul Toth yesterday, is more than just a pat on the back for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which runs the airport. Mr. Toth said it's bait to lure airlines to fly more routes with better planes to and from Toledo, which airport officials consider a key to winning back more area travelers.

“This gives us an edge,” he said. “Every airline planner in the country will be looking at these.”

Toledo Express' second-quarter statistics won't be nearly as eye-popping because of a three-month strike that grounded one of the airport's busiest carriers: Comair. In those months, the airport saw passenger increases of 25 percent - dropping Toledo's six-month growth level to 41.1 percent.

Still, that appears to be enough to beat at least Albany, which has experienced skyrocketing numbers since the arrival of low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines in May, 2000. So the percentage increase for May, 2001, dropped to less than 5 percent.

Airport officials say there's no secret to the success at Toledo Express.

The discount airline AirTran set up service to and from Toledo last fall. That forced other airlines to lower rates, and that drew back many area travelers who flew out of nearby Detroit Metropolitan Airport because of cheaper fares and more flights.

“We're not stealing passengers from Detroit,” Mr. Toth said. “We're just getting our passengers back from Detroit to Toledo.”

Toledo Express has turned heads across the industry in the past year. Airports: USA - a trade journal published by Mr. Boyd's firm, the Boyd Group/ASRC - predicted that Toledo Express would be the 11th fastest-growing airport in the country over the next five years, boosting its passenger traffic by 45 percent by 2005.

For Toledo, the big percentage gains will likely end in October. That's the one-year year anniversary of AirTran's arrival. But Mr. Boyd said he still expects Toledo to continue growing.

“Toledo has a strong future because of where you are,” said Mr. Boyd, who's done consulting work for the port authority. “You've got the I-75 corridor, the I-90 corridor, and you've got the southern [Detroit] suburbs.

In 1997, the industry offered similar lofty predictions. Toledo Express peaked at 680,000 passengers, with AirTran then offering once-a-day flights to Orlando and Delta offering three daily jet flights Atlanta.

But AirTran merged with ValuJet that year and decided to concentrate on service to ValuJet's Atlanta hub. Seeing no opening for an Atlanta market here, AirTran left Toledo Express. Seven months later, Delta pulled out of Toledo, leaving no service to Atlanta, the nation's busiest airport.

Service was restored to Atlanta a year later, but the damage had been done. Toledo Express lost a fourth of its fliers and ended 1999 with under 500,000 passengers, the same amount it had 25 years ago.

It ended the 1990s as the least-used and slowest-growing of eight comparable airports.

Now the numbers are up again, thanks to AirTran's return, and airport officials insist things are different than 1997.

Toledo Express has been expanded, so airport officials have the space to entice more airlines.

Many area companies have pitched in - directly lobbying airlines for more service and even letting airport officials use their confidential travel logs to prove the need for more routes.

With the economy in trouble, local companies are more often choosing the cheaper connecting flights at Toledo Express over the direct flights from Detroit Metro, Mr. Toth said.

Airport officials expect to see bigger passenger increases in the coming months, as Comair gradually resumes its seven daily flights to Cincinnati between Aug. 1 and Nov. 2, and