The Akron-Canton Airport has gone from a sleepy facility 30 years ago to a low-fare leader with connections to a global network, its leader told the Akron Roundtable on Thursday.
When Rick McQueen, president and chief executive officer, started his career in 1982 as an accountant, the airport was starting to see positive changes with the arrival of Piedmont Airlines.
During the 1970s and early ’80s, the airport was hit by deregulation of the industry, the air traffic controllers strike and Northeast Ohio's image as the “rust belt.”
The airport then went on a 15-year roller-coaster ride without consistent growth until the arrival of AirTran Airways, McQueen said.
But since 1996, “We have grown annual passengers in 12 of 15 of those years, quadrupling the number of customers ... from 420,000 to just shy of 1.7 million customers in 2011,” McQueen said.
The airport has added 10 new nonstop markets and invested more than $130 million in airfield and building improvements. A master plan is being developed to help the facility remain positioned for the future, McQueen said.
While the airport doesn't set fares, it can influence them by attracting a balanced mix of low-fare and network carriers, McQueen said.
Low fares and connections to global networks are important to customers and an important business recruiting tool in Northeast Ohio, he said.
Nearly 50 percent of takeoffs and landings at the airport are aboard low-cost carriers such as Airtran Airways and Frontier Airlines.
He said 65 percent of the seats each day are aboard low-cost carriers. In the latest U.S. Department of Transportation air fares report for the top 100 airports in the country, Akron-Canton's average ranked 14th lowest. The airport also has the lowest average fare in a five-state region that includes Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
“No other airport can really come close. It is this kind of information that we as a region can use to help recruit more businesses and to keep talent here,” he said.
The airport recently commissioned a study by consultant Ailevon. It showed that since 1997, low fares were estimated to have saved travelers $958 million dollars since 1997 and more than $90 million in 2011 alone, McQueen said.
Airfares have also dropped 4 percent since 1997 while the national average has increased 31 percent, he said.
Akron-Canton Airport thinks of itself as a low-fare complement to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and has more room to grow as Southwest Airlines recently announced it will join the facility by adding a new Chicago flight in August, McQueen said. Southwest purchased AirTran and is in the process of combining the two airlines.
“What is really exciting for us is that of the 52 AirTran cities Southwest is keeping in their network, only three are currently going to be growing — Atlanta, Dayton and Akron-Canton. That is a huge testament to the value Southwest sees in our community and our region,” he said.
Taking questions from the audience, McQueen was asked why the airport's code was CAK. McQueen said when the airport submitted its paperwork for approval in 1943, it was originally to be named the Canton Akron Memorial Airport because the AKR airport was Akron Fulton International.
McQueen was also asked how airport officials would balance growth with keeping the airport a pleasant size and experience for customers.
“This is one we get asked all the time,” said McQueen. “No matter how we grow, customers will always be first.”