Airport President and CEO Rick McQueen hopes the downward cycle ends this year.
GREEN Although the string of mergers ended several years ago, Akron-Canton Airport continues to feel the effects of airline consolidation.
That won't end until June, which marks the one-year anniversary of Southwest Airlines' final departure at Akron-Canton.
Southwest and AirTran Airways merged in 2012, marking the start of passenger declines at the airport. AirTran had been Akron-Canton's largest carrier before the merger. In 2012, more than 1.83 million passengers used the airport, the most ever, and nearly half used AirTran service.
While declining passenger counts are disappointing, the numbers came in as anticipated for 2017, said Rick McQueen, president and chief executive officer.
More than 1.26 million passengers used Akron-Canton last year, 9.48 percent lower than the more than 1.39 million in 2016. Airport operations — the number of takeoffs and landings — increased to 70,323, up 4.17 percent from 67,509 the previous year.
In addition to Southwest, the airport also lost service by Allegiant Airlines during 2017. The airline, which specializes in vacation travel, switched its service to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport shortly after Spirit Airlines announced it would begin serving Akron-Canton.
Spirit, United and American Airlines have stepped in and filled some of the routes vacated when Southwest left.
But while those airlines are serving former Southwest and AirTran cities, the service is less frequent or provided in smaller planes.
"We just can't recover the number of seats lost with Southwest," McQueen said. "That has a lot to do with the decline."
With the round of consolidations over, the airline industry has stabilized. McQueen hopes this is a chance for Akron-Canton to begin a turnaround.
Earlier this month, United announced plans to offer service to Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport beginning in June. United also serves Chicago O'Hare and the New York City market through Newark Liberty International Airport.
Adding Houston could be the first step toward recovery, said McQueen. The airport is working with its current carriers, as well as others to bring in service. Of course, there aren't many other airlines to pursue. McQueen said efforts continue with Southwest and Allegiant, as well as with JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and others.
Building relationships can take years, and the airlines will act quickly if customers don't use a service. For example, Spirit offered low cost flights to Las Vegas but canceled the service after six months.
"When something doesn't work, it's tough to get them to try it again," McQueen said.
While Akron-Canton has seen numbers slide over the last five years, Cleveland Hopkins has started to see a turnaround.
After United and Continental merged, Hopkins lost its status as a hub airport. It saw passenger totals of more than 11.1 million in 2008 drop to 9.71 million in 2009. The number slipped to a low of 7.609 million in 2014. But Hopkins has seen gains over the past three years and served more than 9.14 million passengers in 2017.
Robert Kennedy, airport director at Hopkins, said lower airfares have been a factor in the resurgence. This year the airport will add WOW Air, an Icelandic airline that will offer low-cost service to several destinations in Europe, including Paris, London and Berlin.
McQueen said it will be interesting to see if travelers take advantage of lower airfares to Europe. Cleveland has experienced a good recovery, but it took several years to turn around, he noted.
Akron-Canton remains a viable participant in Northeast Ohio's transportation network, McQueen said. The airport offers flights to several key cities for making connections, as well as to vacation destinations.
The key is continued community support, McQueen said. "If we fill the airplanes, we have a chance to grow."
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