The loss of dozens of daily United Airlines flights at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport could attract more fliers to Port Columbus and eventually help it become the busiest airport in the state, industry experts say.
United officials recently said the Cleveland airport no longer will serve as a hub and the airline will reduce its flights there by about 60 percent. Cuts are to begin in April and be completed by June.
“We could have the most passengers in the state, but it could take some time,” said David Whitaker, vice president of business development for the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, which manages Port Columbus.
“I think a slight uptick due to what’s happened in Cleveland is possible,” Whitaker said, “ particularly from those midway between us who previously chose Cleveland. We stand to gain, but I wouldn’t look for a profound shifting.”
Other airlines could increase their Cleveland operations, and airlines that do not currently fly in and out of Cleveland could start doing so, he said. At the same time, the authority will continue its efforts to add nonstop destinations from Port Columbus.
Cleveland Hopkins had 9.1 million passengers in 2013, Port Columbus had 6.2 million and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport had 5.7 million.
Cincinnati was once a bustling hub, but operations there were greatly reduced after Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest Airlines. The airport had 16.2 million passengers in 2006. Hub operations in Pittsburgh and Memphis, Tenn., also have been slashed in recent years.
The passenger count at Cleveland Hopkins is expected to drop substantially after the United cuts.
“I don’t want to overstate the case, but potentially Columbus could pick up passengers,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly. “United will run their operation there based on just enough capacity to meet the local demand and, to some degree, Columbus will benefit from this.”
United and Continental Airlines merged in 2010. United and its affiliated airlines carried the most passengers in and out of Hopkins in 2013, about 5.9 million, or 65.5 percent of the year’s total.
The airline will cut its Cleveland flights to 38 destinations, with the cuts including Phoenix, Miami and Charlotte and Raleigh in North Carolina, Whitaker said. Port Columbus has nonstop flights to those four cities.
“United will still retain significant service from Cleveland, maintaining a 50-plus percent market share and serve 20 destinations,” Whitaker said. “That’s a lot for a nonhub.”
In response to the United flight cuts, state Reps. John Barnes and Bill Patmon, both Cleveland Democrats, introduced a bill to create a state-appointed commission. The commission’s goal would be “sustaining and expanding commercial passenger airline and air freight service, including international service, into and from the airports of this state,” according to the bill.
Of the three largest Ohio airports, Port Columbus has the lowest average fares, at $414.87, followed by Cleveland at $471.01 and Cincinnati at $531.21, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics says. The national average is $390.43, up from $334.78 in 2010.
The lower rate at Port Columbus is because of its nonhub status, Kaplan said, adding that business fliers are willing to pay more for nonstop service.
“Competition drives the lower fares,” he said. “There’s no one dominant carrier, and people have three or four connecting options.”
Additional passengers at Port Columbus would be a plus for the local economy, said Kenny McDonald, the chief economic officer of the economic-development group Columbus 2020.
“We are keenly aware that air service is a critical location factor for many existing companies as well as those considering the market for new operations,” he said. “As the Columbus region continues to grow, we are very hopeful that the air service from Port Columbus continues to improve nationally and internationally.”
The two to four daily flights from Port Columbus to Cleveland Hopkins will end in June, but “ virtually every one of these passengers” flew to Cleveland to catch a connecting flight, Whitaker said, adding that they now will fly to Chicago, Newark and other United hubs for connecting flights.
The United cuts in Cleveland are a result of sweeping changes in the airline industry that have included several massive mergers, fewer flights, higher fares, more-crowded airplanes and the elimination of under-performing hubs.
“We had 13 carriers here in 2007 and when all the mergers are completed, we’ll have five,” Whitaker said.
A long-time Continental hub, Cleveland became a drag on the bottom line after United Airlines — which has hub operations in nearby Chicago, as well as several other large cities — announced it would acquire Continental.
Shifting connecting flights to Chicago made economic sense, Kaplan said.
“United said Chicago and Newark handle a lot of the same connecting traffic and are far larger markets,” he said. “In Cleveland, there weren’t enough passengers willing to pay the higher fares for nonstop flights, and that’s what drives these hubs.”
Officials have sought nonstop service from Port Columbus to Western destinations such as San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego for several years and will continue these efforts. Nonstop service between Cleveland and Oklahoma City will end, and this is another nonstop destination the authority will explore, especially given how the state’s oil-and-gas boom has increased demand for flights to key oil-industry cities such as Oklahoma City .
“I think we’re in an upward trajectory and in great position for additional air service,” Whitaker said. “It’s not directly related to the changes in Cleveland ... but we’re now on a level playing field with the (Cleveland and Cincinnati) airports and hopefully we can capitalize on the rising strength of the Columbus economy.”
By Steve Wartenberg - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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