GREEN  In one week, on June 2, Southwest Airlines will move its Northeast Ohio operations from Akron-Canton Airport to Cleveland-Hopkins International.

And while airline business decisions and mergers are nothing new in the airline industry – Allegiant Airlines left CAK in 2016 after two years, and airport President and Chief Executive Officer Rick McQueen pointed out that CAK’s longest continually operating carrier, United, was itself a merger between the Boeing Airplane Company, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Stout Air Services, Varney Air Lines, and National Air Transport in the 1920s and 1930s - there is some question as to whether the region can support two airports.

In part two of this series, we take a closer look at the relationship between the Akron-Canton and Cleveland-Hopkins airports, as well as how the airline transportation needs of other similar population areas in the country are served.

CAK compared to CLE

Both are situated on the region's two north-south interstate highways with Cleveland Hopkins International along I-71 in southwestern Cuyahoga County and Akron-Canton Airport on I-77 in Green, almost exactly between the cities of Akron and Canton. Overall, from door-to-door, the airports are roughly 52 miles apart.

Combined, they service three defined Metropolitan Statistical Areas: Cleveland-Elyria, which encompasses Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Geauga and Lake counties and has a population of 2,077,240, according to the 2010 census; Akron, which encompasses Summit and Portage counties and a population of 703,200; and Canton-Massillon, which encompasses Stark and Carroll counties and has a population of 404,422.

According to 2015 enplanement numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Cleveland Hopkins, which is defined as a primary-medium hub airport, was the nation's 46th busiest with 3,916,922 enplanements, while Akron-Canton, a primary-small hub, was the nation's 100th busiest with 759,335.

An enplanement is every passenger who boards a plane at an airport.

In the most recent data released from the FAA shows Cleveland Hopkins saw a 6.26 percent increase in enplanements in 2015 compared to 2014, while Akron-Canton saw a 1.53 percent decrease.

Going back further, however, illustrates the growth CAK had been experiencing for much of the millenium. In 2000, it was the nation's 128th busiest airport with 393,276 enplanements, but during the next 12 years that number grew by 57 percent and topping out at 910,712 enplanements by 2012. In that same period, CAK went from servicing less than 6 percent of the greater Cleveland-Akron-Canton area's departing passengers to more than 17 percent.

"We were pleased to see steady growth over a 15-year period from our community’s relationship with AirTran Airways, and growth from our other airline partners as well," McQueen said of that time period. "During that time, AirTran increased the destinations they serviced from Akron-Canton Airport and in turn, our community strongly supported the airline by taking advantage of flights to these popular destinations." 

Since 2012, CAK has experienced three straight years of decreases, but still has 48 percent more enplanements than it did at the turn of the century.

"We definitely do see room for growth in the years ahead," McQueen said. "We continuously work with our airline partners to fill key routes and increase service for our customers to meet their needs, and position the airport with affordable costs and exceptional customer service. In addition, we continue to offer great nonstop service to 13 destinations and one-stop global connectivity aboard four exceptional airlines: American, Delta, Spirit and United."

Hopkins, despite gaining passengers in 2015, still has a long way to go to reach the 6,269,516 enplanements it had in 2000, when it was the nation's 34th busiest. Since then, outside of a brief uptick in the mid-2000s and in 2015, it has steadily carried less travelers in the past 15 years.

NEO in the big picture

When put into the context of the United States Census Bureau’s top 25 Combined Statistical Areas (CSA), according to the 2010 census, only two other areas smaller than the Cleveland-Akron-Canton area are served by two airports. Both are in Florida and both are popular vacation destinations.

The Census Bureau defines a Combined Statistical Area as an adjacent Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States and Puerto Rico that can demonstrate economic or social linkage.

The population of the Cleveland-Akron-Canton CSA is 3,515,646, which ranks 17th in the nation. Only Orlando and the Tampa-St. Petersburg - with populations of 2,818,120 and 2,783,243 respectively - are the two areas smaller than Cleveland-Akron-Canton with two commercial airports ranked in the top 100 of number of enplanements.

Moreover, Tampa-St. Petersburg’s two airports (Tampa International and St. Petersburg-Clearwater) had a total enplanement of 9,970,432 in 2015 while and Orlando's (Orlando International and Orlando Sanford International) had 19,969,770. This compared to a combined 4,676,257 at Cleveland Hopkins International and Akron-Canton Airport.

Still, there are some regional areas not meeting the definition of a CSA, but similar to Akron and Cleveland in terms of both population and geographic proximity, which are also served by more than one airport – thus painting a somewhat more amenable picture.

If the Cincinnati and Dayton Metropolitan Statistical Areas would combine, the region would have a population of 3,254,154 and 4,096,750 enplanements. Like in the northeast part of the state, Southwest Ohio will also see Southwest Airlines move from the smaller Dayton International to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport this summer. Dayton International and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International are about 78 miles apart.

A combined Greensboro-Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area has a population of 3,501,929, almost identical to Cleveland-Akron-Canton. It had 5,802,984 enplanements from its Piedmont Triad and Raleigh-Durham International airports, which are roughly 80 miles apart.

A combined Buffalo-Rochester, N.Y., area has a population of 2,380,827 and 3,514,425 enplanements from its two airports, Greater Rochester International and Buffalo Niagara International, which are about 60 miles apart.

Dr. Edward "Ned" Hill, an economist and Ohio State professor of public affairs specializing in the airline industry, said the overarching issue facing both CAK and Hopkins - and other smaller regions with multiple commercial airports - in coming years hinges on customer service.

"Whether people will drive 45 minutes for a limited amount of flights," he said of travelers who live in both the Summit and Stark County areas and greater Cleveland. "Akron-Canton will probably go back to what it was before; low-cost tourist destination flights."

National trend

There is no question, according to both McQueen and Hill, that all airlines are increasingly moving toward bigger, hub airports.

"If the U.S. market is operated by an oligarchy of four (airlines), they are always going to move to where the bulk of the population is," Hill said.

Airline hubs are used by one or more airliners to concentrate passenger traffic and flight operations at a given airport. An airline operates flights from several non-hub cities to the hub airport, with passengers traveling between spoke cities connecting through the hub.

By contrast, a point-to-point system has no hubs and nonstop flights are instead offered between spoke cities.

In the late 1980s after years as one of the main hub operations for United Airlines, United began to offer fewer flights from Cleveland as it built a new hub at Washington Dulles International Airport. Continental Airlines - prior to its merger with United – then established a hub in Cleveland to fill the void left by United.

"There was a time when there were no empty gates at Hopkins and fees were relatively high," Hill said. "And that was perfect for Akron-Canton."

Cleveland-Hopkins was delivered a blow in 2014, however, when it lost its United Airlines hub status.

Still, a 2016 study by Kent State University’s WKSU radio found that de-hubbing has resulted in both positive and negative changes.

Fewer direct flights have indeed had a negative impact on business travelers and travel agents, the study found, but larger aircraft servicing Cleveland has brought the passenger level back to nearly what it was before United de-hubbed and the predicted economic disaster has largely been averted.

The bright side of the future

Given the industry’s increasing consolidation of hub operations, and Cleveland’s proximity of United’s largest hub, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, United’s de-hubbing of Hopkins was not altogether surprising.  And that same argument may be made in regard to Akron-Canton’s nearness to two Southwest Airlines outposts at John Glenn Columbus and Pittsburgh International airports.

In short, announcements like Southwest’s move from CAK to Cleveland-Hopkins – at the same time that budget airline Spirit launches an increasing number of non-stop flights to vacation destinations in Florida and, most recently, Las Vegas - is not so much a harbinger of the obsolescence of medium sized regional airports like CAK, but rather illustrate the need for a slightly new business model.

For his part, McQueen not only accepts, but invites this analysis – right down to CAK’s business motto, "A Better Way to Go."

"The bigger airports need the feeder system and we still had 1.4 million passengers last year," McQueen said. "That shows there are enough people in Northeast Ohio to support two airports."

Click here to read the first part of the series

Suburbanite editor Greg Kohntopp contributed to this report.