Akron-Canton Airport has seen increasing air traffic since the mid-1990s. But in the past two years, it’s faced new challenges with one airline cutting service, and others shifting some flights to Cleveland Hopkins Airport to fill the void left when United Airlines closed its hub. In the third part in our series, Grounded, WKSU's Kabir Bhatia takes a look at how Akron-Canton actually has plans to expand and thrive over the next 20 years.
The dated, Spartan boarding areas for Delta and American Airlines at Akron-Canton Airport will soon be a thing of the past. Built in the early 1960s, they are slated to be replaced under a new 20-year, $240 million master plan announced in February. The news came just a few months after Southwest announced it would cut back to just three flights a day from Akron-Canton, all to their hub in Atlanta.
Southwest inherited its gates at Akron-Canton through a merger with AirTran in 2010, and the carrier has slowly shifted its flights toward Cleveland Hopkins in recent years. Akron Airport CEO Rick McQueen says it’s all about load factors: whereas Southwest might previously have sent out partially filled 737’s, other airlines might now offer service to those same destinations on fully boarded regional jets.
“The good news for us is all of our other carriers -- American, Delta, United and now Allegiant -- they're all growing here. They won't make up all the seats we're going to lose from Southwest. But if there is a silver lining to this, it's that Southwest has proved some really good markets out of the Akron-Canton region that we now have data and we can go talk to other carriers to work with them to try to backfill or replace some of that.”
Feeding the hubs
Feeding larger hubs is the strategy for Southwest, and McQueen says that applies to Akron’s other carriers as well. Southwest Spokesman Dan Landson called it a difficult decision to scale back service in Akron. But he adds that the airline has no plans to leave the airport. Instead, it will act as what he calls a "co-terminal" with Cleveland Hopkins.
"We treat Akron-Canton and Cleveland [Hopkins] as basically one metroplex, if you will. So by offering a little bit of a different product at each airport, you're targeting a little bit of a different customer.”
There’s potentially four million of those customers in Northeast Ohio and beyond, according to Dan Colantone, CEO of the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce.
"We're in one of those kinds of markets where you'll have individuals travel from Youngstown, as far as an hour-plus, to either go to Akron-Canton or go to Hopkins. It's just a matter of where they're going and when they need to be there and what might be their best option. Probably even from Western Pennsylvania when the flight's right and the price is right."
Price or convenience
That average price is lower now than when United had a hub at Hopkins: fares in Akron-Canton were down about six percent in the fourth quarter of last year. That’s still cheaper than Cleveland, which has seen a significant drop in airfares since de-hubbing. Colantone says businesses will typically opt for the cheapest fare, period.
“At the end of the day, the truth of the matter is, it's all about cost-of-doing-business, right? While it might be inconvenient, you need to do what you have to do to get to your destination. So there are going to be times where you have to go indirect. We wish there was more direct service [but] with alternatives, you can usually get somewhere in a reasonable time.”
But there are also people trying to get from somewhere to Akron-Canton, for things like the expanding Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“We call it the ‘Disney of Football.’ The plans that are scheduled for that are an enormous asset for us and will bode well for particularly leisure travel as well as business travel.”
Akron-Canton Airport’s Rick McQueen agrees and says that’s one reason his airport is expanding.
“We believe that this region is going to grow, and it's going to grow substantially. So we want to make sure -- through this master plan -- that this facility is positioned to take advantage of those opportunities.” The new 20-year plan includes improvements to the ticketing area, plus six new gates. On a recent afternoon, many travelers were praising the airport’s convenience, while looking forward to the expansion.
“Any time the company asks me what airport I want to go out of: Akron-Canton.”
That’s Steven Pursley, an Account Manager for Kauffman Tire. From the leisure travel side, Phyllis Hickman from Ft. Myers says, “I think some more restaurants would be nice. I think some pizza would be amazing.”
The master plan includes an expansion of the amount of space available for food and drink at the airport, if passenger traffic continues growing at the current pace. By the end of this year, the first phase of the master plan will see completion of parking lot improvements and a redesign to the main driveway. Along with additional gates, longer-term plans call for a parking garage and a streamlined baggage system.