What’s Next for Toledo Express Airport and Midsized Air Travel Hubs?

The aviation industry is currently experiencing serious turbulence across the board, from widespread flight delays to disastrous financial losses from COVID-19. As a result of these resource crunches, regional and midsized air travel hubs are receiving the short end of the stick. This story looks into a recent development in airline service for Toledo and how it reflects larger trends in the business. Cover graphic by Mandy Repp for Midstory.

On Sept. 6, an Embraer ERJ145 jet departed Eugene F. Kranz Toledo Express Airport at 3:58 p.m. One hour and 17 minutes later, the aircraft parked at the gate at O’Hare International Airport and deplaned its passengers.

The conclusion of that flight marked an unceremonious end to American Airlines service between Toledo and Chicago — in fact, it was AA’s final trip between Toledo and any destination, leaving Allegiant Air as the airport’s sole commercial airline and a less-than-rosy outlook for local travelers. 

“This is unlike anything the airline industry has ever seen, ever, probably in the history of aviation,” Joe Cappel, vice president of business development for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which oversees the airport, said. “It’s kind of the perfect storm of things that led to this scenario where we are now.”

Air travel in Toledo has been in flux for years, but the pandemic exacerbated the bumps in the road. In general, airlines are currently facing just about every problem under the sun. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive drop in demand for air travel beginning in 2020, especially for lucrative business travel. As a result, the industry faced catastrophic financial losses: according to a June report by the International Air Transport Association, North American airlines lost $37.3 billion from 2020-21. The report projects them to return to profitability in 2022 due to the reopening of domestic and international markets. The summer of “revenge travel” after years of shutdowns and rescheduled vacations also played a key role in the industry’s recovery. According to Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Lisa Farbstein, for example, on July 1 TSA officers screened their largest number of passengers since Feb. 11, 2020.

Accompanying that economic rebound, however, has been a slew of issues deriving from such a rapid attempted return to “business as usual.” The most visible challenges for travelers have been flight delays and cancellations: the July Fourth travel period suffered at least 1,435 cancellations and more than 10,000 delays, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware. Fuel prices are on the rise, according to the IATA report, jumping from $46.60 per barrel in 2020 to $125.50 this year.

But perhaps the most difficult obstacle to calm skies is the national pilot shortage. The deficit is years in the making: During the pandemic, many airlines offered employees, including pilots, early retirement and buyout packages in order to conserve the companies’ finances. According to CBS News, about 8% of the workforce accepted these deals. And as the industry has recuperated much of its typical business, those departures are coming back to bite it. Management consulting firm Oliver Wyman projects that North America is 8,000 pilots short of meeting demand this year. Alongside unpredictable factors like inclement weather, the shortage is a key reason why airlines canceled so many flights this summer — there weren’t enough pilots to fly the planes.

Airlines themselves have worsened the crisis in some ways, such as by adding dozens of new routes this year without a proportional personnel increase. The outlook for the near future is also bleak because the pilot certification process is long, challenging and expensive, though airlines are now making efforts to accelerate it through investments in schools and training programs. Major airlines are also patching up their deficits by recruiting pilots from regional carriers that pay them less, according to CNBC. That exodus leaves regional service providers like Envoy Air, an American Airlines affiliate that operated AA’s service between Toledo and Chicago, in the cold.

“Some of the junior pilots who are flying the smaller regional jets to small and mid-sized airports like Toledo, they graduated up and started flying larger jets that really left a void at the regional pilot level that the airlines are really struggling to fix and to address,” Cappel said. “What that means is that the airlines simply don't have enough crew and enough pilots to fly all the routes that they'd like to fly, even profitable routes from their perspective. So I believe there are something like 500 regional jets that are parked right now.”

Image courtesy of the Eugene F. Kranz Toledo Express Airport Facebook page.

Cappel said the AA flights to Chicago were via planes with capacities of only 50 passengers. The economics of providing service to a limited number of passengers, balanced against personnel and fuel costs, may have also factored into the airline’s termination of Chicago service, he said.

American Airlines highlighted the distinct struggles of regional air service in its statement on the cancellation of service for Toledo Express and several other midsized U.S. airports.

“In response to the regional pilot shortage affecting the airline industry, American Airlines has made the difficult decision to end service in Dubuque, Iowa, Islip and Ithaca, New York, and Toledo, Ohio, effective Sept. 7,” the statement read.

Toledo once had aspirations of being a world-class air transit center. In 1945, designer Norman Bel Geddes created an ambitious master plan for the city called “Toledo Tomorrow,” including an interactive exhibit visualizing his aspirations. The flagship feature of “Toledo Tomorrow” was a new transit hub for air, rail and bus — including a central commercial airport, three private airports and a freight airport. 

“This is a striking aerial view of the central airport and union passenger terminal of Toledo Tomorrow. To the right of the airport stretches Anthony Wayne Trail as converted into an express highway. The foreground is Anthony Wayne Bridge and the union railroad freight terminal” (from the Toledo Tomorrow plan by Norman Bel Geddes and associates). Image courtesy of the University of Toledo.

Toledo today lacks that transit hub. It has three airports: Toledo Express, Toledo Executive — a reliever airport for Toledo Express primarily catering to corporations — and Toledo Suburban, a small airport mostly used as a flight school and storage site.

But Toledo Express’ outlook has also changed drastically from as recently as this century. According to a September 2021 report on the airport’s structure and performance, the level of service at the airport “has fallen significantly over the past 20 years.” Since 2000, 12 different airlines, including major carriers like Delta and US Airways, have offered service from Toledo Express; now, that number is down to one. In August 2003, the airport offered flights to Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Now, it has phased out all of those destinations.

Part of the challenge with Toledo Express is that local residents often use Detroit Metropolitan Airport, located less than 50 miles from Toledo, instead because it is a major Delta Air Lines hub and offers many more routes. Detroit Metro is enough of a factor in Toledo Express’ business that the airport has a webpage where users can calculate the cost difference for flying out of Toledo instead of Detroit.

According to Cappel, about 90% of Toledo-area business travelers fly out of Detroit. Bowling Green State University’s Center for Regional Development released an economic impact study of Toledo Express and Toledo Executive on Aug. 25, which found that Toledo-area passenger leakage to Detroit Metro annually costs the region $5.4 million in economic output and 70 jobs.

Indeed, Toledo Express has pivoted in its offerings from major cities to vacation spots in recent years. Toledo Express’ four remaining routes are to Phoenix and three Florida destinations: Fort Myers, Orlando and Tampa. All of these are warm-weather areas, and all are Allegiant Air flights that usually operate twice weekly. 

In contrast to American Airlines, Allegiant is an ultra-low-cost carrier that caters to budget-minded leisure travelers. Cappel said low-cost carriers, which typically lack the amenities of major network carriers like AA, represent Toledo Express’ best opportunity to expand its service. 

“They're a good pairing with Toledo because people that fly from Toledo, a lot of them have second homes in leisure-type markets down in Florida or out west. We know that people from Toledo like getting a good deal when they're flying, and these low-cost carriers provide that,” Cappel said. “We’re a low-cost airport. We know that in order for Toledo to be competitive, we have to be low-cost.”

Before the pandemic, this model achieved success for Toledo. Allegiant first arrived at the airport in 2005 and expanded its offerings throughout the next 15-plus years — its service to Phoenix began in March. Cappel said annual ridership increased every year from 2013-19, though he partially credited that trend to an AA route to Charlotte, North Carolina, that launched in 2017 before folding in November 2021 due to airline resource constraints.

The Bowling Green State University economic impact study estimated that the addition of a new ultra-low-cost carrier service with four flights a week would create about $9.0 million in annual economic output and support 73 new jobs. But it also found that a new twice-daily route on a network carrier — much like the current American Airlines service to Chicago — would generate $13.3 million in economic output per year and result in 115 new jobs.

The airport is constantly in discussion with airlines, including American Airlines, on prospective new routes, according to Greg Atkin. Atkin, director of Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting, which works with Toledo Express, said the airport acts proactively in engaging in these talks rather than reacting to events like the cancellation of service to Chicago.

A 1950s postcard showing a view of an airliner loading at Toledo Express Airport. Image courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library Digital Collections via Ohio Memory.

Airlines are typically the party that decides whether to offer service to an airport, rather than the other way around. Atkin said the airport utilizes metrics such as mobility data, which tracks local residents’ air travel, to support its bids for new service and tell “the story of Toledo” to carriers.

“We're presenting the business case. We're showing carriers things like, ‘Hey look, this is where people in Toledo’s second homes are. These are some of the markets that have high demand. These are some of the things that are going on in the community,’” Atkin said. “So we're constantly talking to carriers and getting feedback from them and showing them opportunities.”

Potential future destinations for Toledo, Atkin said, include Las Vegas and South Florida cities like Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Cappel emphasized that Toledo Express Airport maintains other parts of its business apart from commercial air service. He highlighted the airport’s Air National Guard Base, Amazon Air gateway, corporate hangars, center for aircraft ground support equipment manufacturer Tronair and Aerospace Academy as important community employers and economic stimulants. According to the Bowling Green State study, Toledo Express generated $581.5 million in economic output last year — but commercial air service contributed only $40.7 million, about 7% of total output. Meanwhile, non-commercial services accounted for 91% of output.

“Obviously it's disappointing with American’s decision to end their service here, but certainly it doesn't mean that the airport is dead or anything like that, far from it,” Cappel said. “There's a lot that's happening here, and the future is bright, too.”

At the same time, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority garnered criticism for missing out on an opportunity to secure more funding for Toledo Express. According to the Toledo Blade, the port authority did not apply for a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration’s $5 billion Airport Terminals initiative, citing the lack of a ready project proposal. It does not plan to apply for the program until 2024. The move earned public disapproval from Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and local U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur.

Cappel said there was no “silver bullet” that would have changed AA’s service cancellation. He encouraged people to support Allegiant Air’s routes, and he stressed the importance of local airports in terms of economic impact and job opportunities.

Toledo Express, Cappel said, is not scaling back its operations but rather increasing its efforts to develop more air service at the airport.

“It doesn't make anybody feel good, right? When you had something, and now you no longer have it in a couple months. So I think emotionally, maybe, it hurts our pride a little bit,” Cappel said. “But it's something that I think the community needs to take a look at and ask themselves what the value of the airport is for this region. And if everybody's fine using other, alternative airports, I guess people have to live with that … but it's always harder to bring back something that’s lost.”

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