Akron Canton Airport Faces The Headwinds Of Consolidation
Less than a decade ago, Akron Canton was one of the fastest growing airports in the country, topping 1.8 million passengers. That’s now been cut in half. Still, the airport is investing nearly $40 million in upgrades. Airport officials, industry experts and travelers say it’s a matter of survival.
In June, the airport’s marketing director Lisa Dalpiaz heads to Nashville where she will sit across a folding table from an executive of an airline and try to convince him or her that Akron Canton is the place to be. Then she’ll move onto the next table and the next exec. It’s a kind of speed dating with millions of dollars and regional identity hanging in the balance.
“You get 20 minutes to sit with them and pitch your case,” she explained. “So if it’s a new airline, you have to let them know about your entire market and try to make it so that you stand out against 500 other airports that are also there.”
Those 20 minutes aren’t the only time Dalpiaz meets with airlines. There are also trips to corporate headquarters, and every pitch is backed by years of research, even with airlines, like United, that have flown from Akron Canton for decades.
Sometimes it works. Five years of research into the growing oil and gas industry in Ohio landed a daily nonstop to Houston last summer, and the 50-seat plane is about to be upgraded to one carrying 76 passengers.
CAK Marketing Director Lisa Dalpiaz and the airport's director Ren Camacho. [M.L. Schultze]
But Ohio Aviation Association Vice President Russell Mills says the days of the easy sell are long gone. He says they’ve been squeezed by mergers and consolidations, a pilot shortage and little patience among the airlines to give new routes a chance to grow.
“Many airports do a great job of sharing their message and highlighting their competitive advantages and the businesses in their region, etc.,” Mills said. “But at the end of the day, the airlines really do dictate what air service communities will have.”
Southwest Goes North
No airline dictated more at Akron Canton than Southwest Airlines.
The airport had soared with Airtran’s low-cost routes to places like New York, Chicago and especially Florida. But AirTran merged with Southwest at just about the time airlines nationally began defining themselves more by profit than market share.
Mills says one way to maximize profit is to consolidate: flying fewer flights with more seats out of bigger airports. It’s a strategy that impacts, and is impacted by, a lot of other factors including the landing fees airports charge airlines. And it’s a strategy Southwest followed in Northeast Ohio.
Shortly after it took over Airtran in 2012, Southwest began consolidating flights at Cleveland Hopkins. It ended service at Akron Canton altogether in 2017.
Allegiant Air also headed north, and Akron Canton’s passenger numbers plummeted: down to 1.4 million in 2016, 1.27 million in 2017, and 930,000 last year.
All of which may make the $34 million gate expansion at Akron Canton seem counter-intuitive, but not to Ren Camacho, the new director of the airport. He’s an alumni of Cleveland Hopkins and an engineer who jokes that he enjoys “speaking geek” with the engineering and architectural teams working on the expansion.
The new gates, which will be completed by late next year, will replace a set built in the 1960s, one with low ceilings, limited amenities and a claustrophobic feel.
A few of the newer gates are already operating upstairs.
The CAK atrium with a view of the old gates in the background. [M.L. Schultze]
“Width-wise and height-wise and natural-light wise, you can see a stark contrast,” Camacho said. The new areas also include free wi-fi and more plug-in stations and jet bridges to all planes.
The project follows an overhaul of Akron-Canton’s ticketing area in 2016 and the installation of covered parking in 2017. With an eye on cost, and on the potential impact of autonomous vehicles and ride sharing, the airport went with a kind of massive, arched carport instead of a parking garage.
Camacho said all of it helps with airlines and passengers.
“It’s where we need to be to position us for, again, those conversations with the airlines, whether it’s in 20 minutes or a visit to an airline headquarters, keep us up with the current times,” he said.
CAK officials are marketing the shorter time it takes to get from their new parking garage to security compared to larger airports. [M.L. Schultze]
Akron Canton has its niche, Camacho said, what he calls a small-town feel with big airport amenities. Its marketing campaign is all about ease: from parking to ticketing to security.
Camacho points to a window of the ticketing area, then across the drive to the parking area, and finally around the corner to security. He estimates it takes as little as half the time for fliers to get to their gates here compared to larger airports.
Leslie Onyewuenyi, an IT consultant catching his flight back to Atlanta, confirmed that.
“Ten minutes and I’m through security. In Atlanta, it would take me about 20 to 30 minutes and a long line,” Onyewuenyi said.
Still, some of the ease is undeniably tied to fewer passengers, and Camacho doesn’t expect Akron Canton will hit 1.8 million passengers again. He says he’ll be happy with 1.2 or 1.3 million.
“We are right-sized today, positioning ourselves to be right-sized for the future,” he said.
New Air Transportation Realities
The Aviation Association’s Russell Mills says Akron Canton is living with other realities that have hit small and medium airports especially hard. He notes that airports operate largely with the help of a tax collected on tickets, but that doesn’t extend to fees for things like seat assignments and baggage.
Another issue is a shortage of airline pilots. As baby boomers retire, Mills says Boeing estimates 638,000 pilots will be needed worldwide over the next 20 years to meet travel demand. So, he says, larger airlines are increasingly scooping up pilots from the smaller airlines that serve the smaller airports.
Air industry consultant Mike Boyd says he believes the industry will adapt to ensure it has the the pilots it needs.
Meanwhile, he says Akron Canton is adapting to all the pressures, in part by recognizing the old days are gone.
He predicts it will remain viable, with airlines like Spirit serving what he calls “impulse buyers” who opt for a flight to Florida when the fares are cheap enough.
But the key to Akron Canton and any airport, he adds, is “connectivity” — a link to other markets needed especially by business travelers.
A Cleveland Hopkins or a Chicago will always have the advantage with those fliers when it comes to nonstop coast-to-coast flights, for example.
“But if he’s going to be going to let’s say Kalispell (Mont.), it makes just as much sense to fly out of Akron as it does out of Chicago because you’re going to make a connection anyway,” Boyd said. “And your car is more likely to be in the lot when you get back to Akron than it is in O’Hare.”
Mills says Akron Canton’s emphasis on ease may be part of a role-reversal emerging among pairs of commercial airports competing in the same region, such as Norfolk and Newport News. As larger airports pick up discount travelers, some smaller airports have become convenient options for the more profitable business travelers.
“If you want the convenience of flying out of that airport, the airports will price it in such a way, frankly, because they have fewer passengers to spread the costs over, they will price that market at a higher premium,” Mills said.
But the ultimate air travel convenience is more routes to more places. So some states, like Indiana, are wooing airlines with tax money; others, like Michigan, with money pooled by the business community. Absent that, for now, Akron-Canton is relying on well-honed pitches.