Cleveland Officials Cast United Cutbacks As Opportunity

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Mayor Frank Jackson said he’s disappointed Cleveland is losing its hub status, but moved on to tell reporters the city-owned airport is still an important regional asset. He said since he took office in 2006, his administration has worked to build on the airport expansion that took place under Mayor Mike White in the 1990s. He says they’re working to improve operations and infrastructure, renovate the terminal and finish a new traffic control tower currently under construction.

“Because of these efforts and others, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, even with the loss of the United Hub, is in a stronger position to grow today than it was eight years ago,” said Jackson.

The mayor said that now the airport can quote “more effectively market itself” with other carriers, one or more of which will hopefully step in to replace some of the lost service. For all the upbeat takes on the situation, Jackson said he still wanted to reiterate that United’s cuts were significant.

“But at the same time, we were prepared for the possibility and have strategic plans in place to address what we need to address to insure the viability of this airport and the competitiveness of this region’s economy.”

Jackson says he’s asked the Ohio Attorney General to do an audit related to United’s decision, and he’s asked city, county, and state workforce development teams to help displaced workers get new training or new positions that fit their skills and qualifications. Most of the roughly 500 jobs are in airline operations, though about 40 are in catering.

Appearing with Jackson was Airport Director Ricky Smith, who was also cautiously optimistic.

“We will bounce back, we’ll be fine," said Smith. "We’re going to get through this.”

Smith explained that part of the impetus of United’s move was a new federal regulation that required pilots to have more flying hours before they could be hired, which caused problems with the airline’s regional partners because of fewer pilots. Smith’s overall message was that the cuts were not a statement about Cleveland itself.

“This was a business decision for United Airlines, not an indictment on Cleveland’s economy. We continue to be a very strong market with very strong local demand.”

Smith added that this could be good for travelers, in that competition among the remaining carriers could drive down air fares. And Cleveland Hopkins will retain 20 of United’s high-demand non-stop markets, including New York, Washington D.C., and Las Vegas.

Both Smith and Mayor Jackson say other prospective carriers have been approached about filling in United’s void….something that Richard Aboulafia -- an air travel analyst with the Washington D.C. based Teal Group -- doubts will actually happen.

“You go to St. Louis – formerly the TWA hub – and there’s simply quite a few empty, unused gates and the level of service is much smaller than it was, when TWA was an independent carrier," says Aboulafia.

"I don’t think you’re going to see a whole lot of folks race to fill the vacuum here.”

But Ned Hill, Dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at CSU, thinks otherwise.

“I expect to see Southwest to expand here,” he says.

Hill speculates that this move by United will affect another major airport in the region – Akron Canton. Southwest Airlines is the second biggest carrier at Cleveland-Hopkins, and it also has operations at Akron Canton Hill says it would make sense for Southwest to consider a move further north:

“There’ll be space…there should be gates available," says Hill. "And the role that Akron-Canton airport always played, was they were the competitive threat, so when prices got too high here, you could go down the road and get more competitive flights, well… looking out two years, I expect that you’re going to see air fares actually start to fall in Cleveland.”

And let’s not forget major rival Delta, which Hill says should be playing up its own flights and competitive airfares very soon.

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