Across the windswept cornfields of New Russia Township, Lorain County Regional Airport sits as an economic kernel poised to pop.
While air traffic at this western-tier aviation outpost is meager, a movement is afoot to change that. County planners want to transform the airfield's 5,000-foot runway and more than 1,000 acres of undeveloped land into a mecca for light cargo and private operators, as well as a center for renewed economic development for the county.
Initial estimates have the facility generating more than $6 million annually in financial benefits to Lorain County by 2002, according to an April 1999 impact report.
'There is a lot of potential,' says airport operations manager Dan Abfall. 'We own a lot of property. And with all the problems they are having at Cleveland [Hopkins International Airport], I think right now the potential is really good here.'
The airport, today a collection of aging hangars and a single fixed-based operator, is scheduled to begin renovating its current facilities this spring a potentially multimillion-dollar project. 'The airport is in need of a lot of updating,' says airport authority board president Jim Zingale. 'We are looking at what kind of services we should be providing and ... what kind of services are probably going to be forced out of Hopkins in the near future and the possibility of moving them into here.'
In an aggressive move last year, the airport board recruited seasoned aviation administrator Mike Barth, then head of Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. The board and county contend that Barth's experience at Burke and his vision for Lorain County's airport can jump-start growth at the underdeveloped airfield.
So, as Cleveland Hopkins International Airport jockeys for a future as a major commercial hub, Lorain County Regional Airport and a handful of smaller regional airports are attempting to swoop in for an increased share of the aviation industry's estimated $594 billion in revenue nationally.
The Department of Transportation reports that U.S. air travel has increased 36 percent during the past seven years. And, as air travel has become more convenient and affordable, flight delays and cancellations within the industry's high-profile commercial arm have soared faster than the Concorde. Summer 1999 was the worst period ever for domestic flight delays, and early reports for summer 2000 showed little improvement.
As commercial airlines gobble up gate capacity and air space at Hopkins, passengers who seek more private and flexible alternatives have created opportunities for smaller regional and reliever facilities or secondary airports to land more cargo and corporate travel. As a result, Northeast Ohio's smaller airports located seemingly at each compass point are boosting their facilities to accommodate what they believe could be a sonic boom in business.
Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport already has capitalized on expansion, says Tom Nolan, director of aviation for the Western Reserve Port Authority, which owns and operates the airport at the eastern edge of the region. Over the last four years, the airport has received close to $45 million in federal, state and local money for airfield expansion.
In 1996, the Clinton administration highlighted Youngstown-Warren and its new air-cargo facility as a prime example of the federal government's commitment to improving regional infrastructure nationwide. 'This is a region rich in locations,' proclaimed Federico Pena, then secretary of transportation. Strategically positioned midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and New York and Chicago, the regional airport was readied for takeoff, Pena suggested.
'In order to capture all of that statistical wealth, you have to be in the middle of it; and we're in the middle of it,' Nolan asserts, pointing out that the facility is within 75 miles of more than 20 Fortune-500 companies and nearly 12,000 manufacturing plants. 'We are in a position to really sweeten the pot for a business that wants to take advantage of a very strong labor force, low cost of living, great quality of life. All of those are big incentives for businesses that typically want to get away from the problems and cost and congestion that come with a big city.'
In addition to a 10-acre air-cargo apron complex, the expansion included lengthening runways at 9,000 feet, one is now slightly longer than Hopkins' longest and an improved terminal building.
Operating at only one-third of its capacity and designated a foreign-trade zone, Youngstown-Warren is now poised to capitalize on a dynamic aviation industry, one often left unfulfilled in the region, Nolan says. 'Northeast Ohio ... has lagged in capacity and ability to accommodate what the demand really is here,' he says.
Nolan points to Akron-Canton Regional Airport's decade of success as an example of how airport planners can correctly harness economic potential for expanding an airfield's business.
Fred Krum, director of aviation for Akron-Canton Regional Airport, is modest about how his airport has grown. He doesn't consider Akron-Canton's 90 percent growth in passenger traffic since 1995 as taking business from Hopkins. Instead, it's a natural evolution for the air facility as Northeast Ohio's economic region increases in size and capacity.
'Frankly, that's the only way regional airports grow,' he says. 'Regional airports don't just steal passengers from big airports.' Cleveland Hopkins now services 13 million passengers a year, whereas Akron-Canton handles about 800,000 passengers annually, he says.
After pouring $15 million into airport renovations throughout the 1990s, Akron-Canton plans to invest another $30 million for terminal enlargement and runway expansion. The runway-extension program, which will lengthen the airport's midsize runway from 6,400 feet to match its longest at 7,600 feet, is scheduled to start in spring 2001.
Specializing in commercial air travel and corporate and private aviation, Akron-Canton set a record in June with 77,935 passengers, an 11.7 percent increase over the same month last year. With three runways and more than 400 arrivals and departures daily, Akron-Canton draws about 7 percent of its market from Cuyahoga County and 5 percent from Pennsylvania.
'We're tickled at the growth that we're having,' Krum says. 'We are looking forward to this explosion in the future; we are getting ourselves ready in five years to be a 2 million-passenger airport. The biggest growth is yet to come when Cleveland hits the wall, and they will hit the wall.'
But most of the region's smaller airports will compete for corporate traffic in the future; and Burke Lakefront Airport wants to reinforce its downtown Cleveland presence to the business community. Perhaps better known as the site of the annual Marconi Grand Prix of Cleveland and Cleveland National Air Show, Burke recently unveiled its 15-year, $39 million master plan to build business at the downtown Cleveland reliever airport.
Kate Hubben, spokeswoman for both Burke and Cleveland Hopkins, says Burke has targeted more fixed-based operators. Runways of 6,200 feet and 5,200 feet serve corporate-jet traffic and private-aircraft traffic.
Fixed-based operators (FBOs) 'want to come to Burke,' she says. 'But we don't necessarily have facilities for them to use. We have the space available; we just have to construct more FBO hangars.'
Burke has taken advantage of midday congestion and potential delays at Hopkins, says Mark VanLoh, commissioner of Burke and Hopkins airports. 'Anytime you see anything happening in Cleveland, whether it's football, baseball, rock stars they all fly into Burke,' says VanLoh. 'Burke is so handy if you've got business downtown.
'You never know, you may see airline service there once again like you had years ago. It's a fickle industry,' he says. 'We just want to be ready in case those announcements come.'
Similarly, administrators at Cuyahoga County Airport are looking to reinforce their position with this region's corporate flyers.
As a general aviation reliever airport for Hopkins, Cuyahoga County Airport caters to businesses and corporations in eastern Cuyahoga County and western portions of Lake and Geauga counties. Situated on more than 620 acres in Richmond Heights, the airport has 14 hangars, an industrial park comprised of five office buildings and one 5,100-foot runway with full-instrument landing system.
Sans scheduled airline or commuter flights, the airfield averages close to 300 landings and takeoffs a day. Companies such as Eaton Corp., TRW, National City and Progressive all call the county airport home.
'Eighty-five percent of activity is corporate and business related, and currently we have 185 based aircraft of which 108 are either jet or turbo-prop aircraft,' says airport manager Daniel R. Kozar. 'Look at all the problems people have with the airlines. Businesspeople don't want to be strapped with these inconveniences, and they want to go where they go according to their schedules.'
With significantly more reliever-type airports peppered across the nation than larger international hubs, Kozar says their importance to business traffic will only increase. 'These jets are flying offices,' he says. 'These business execs can take advantage of going to and where they want to go when they want to go.'
Still, only two of this region's airports Hopkins and Akron-Canton report substantial revenue figures, says Edward Hill, senior research scholar at The Urban Center at Cleveland State University, who studies transportation issues. He contends that without a broad-based plan to deal with future corporate and recreational business, Northeast Ohio's smaller regional airports will begin to butt heads for business.
'There is no broad picture here,' he says. 'Every region in the nation has this same dilemma, and some more than others.
'It would be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, to get together and develop a plan,' Hill says. 'They need to break it out from being a win-lose situation into a win-win situation.'
Cargo transportation is another issue altogether. Hill says that facet hasn't been exploited to any great extent by any of the smaller airports.
Calling cargo transportation aviation's 'stepchild' in Greater Cleveland, Larry Yankow, president of International Transport Services and former president of the Cleveland Air Freight Association, says the region needs to renew its commitment to this neglected business sector.
Freight transport generates much less than commercial travel. For instance, it costs $90 for coast-to-coast transport of 200 pounds of freight, whereas a commercial passenger of 200 pounds would pay $300, Yankow says. As a result, for more than 20 years, massive amounts of cargo have been trucked out of Cleveland to Chicago, Pittsburgh and Newark, N.J.
'We're just so far behind that you can't even comprehend how much business Cleveland has lost because of it,' Yankow says. 'We will never attract international companies to Cleveland, where Cincinnati will and Pittsburgh will, because we don't have the air service.'
Still, airport administrators see clear economic skies on the horizon with enough potential business to satisfy everyone's appetite.
'There is plenty of a piece of pie for everybody to grab here,' says Younstown-Warren's Nolan. 'We could only encourage that Cleveland continues on their aggressive plans for development it's paramount to the region. Whatever Cleveland does to grow is only helping complement and solidify the aviation base here.'
The bottom line to corporate and private flyers where much of this business potential lies is that Northeast Ohio's smaller airports can better accommodate their aviation needs than a larger international hub such as Hopkins.
'People are choosing convenience,' says Akron-Canton's Krum. 'Obviously Cleveland has more flights and more options, but what it's all about is giving more people more options, and that's good for the entire region.'