GREEN — There are four major airlines that carry 80 percent of the people who travel across the U.S., and one of those airlines doesn't fly from Akron-Canton Airport.

That is a key reason why the airport has seen a steady drop in commercial airline passengers since 2012, when it topped 1.83 million passengers. Last year, 923,722 passengers flew on commercial flights into and out of Akron-Canton.

Missing is Southwest Airlines. In June 2017, it decided to move all of its Northeast Ohio flights to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

The nation's three other major carriers — American, United and Delta — provide service from Akron-Canton, and two added flights after Southwest departed. But the additional service hasn't filled the gap.

"At the end of the day, it's the airlines that decide where they will fly," said Russell W. Mills, vice president with the Ohio Aviation Association and a consultant in the airline industry.

Attracting commercial airline service is a challenge for small, regional airports. Each airline is seeking profitable routes, but even having a profitable route doesn't guarantee an airport will get service. That's because airlines face a pilot shortage as well as issues finding technicians to provide plane maintenance.

 

Consolidation

 

There are 11 major air passenger carriers serving the United States, with four dominating the market and the other seven scrambling for the remaining 20 percent of passengers.

But 20 years ago, there were 14 major airlines, in addition to smaller companies. The loss of airlines drives down competition and leaves airports with fewer choices, said Lisa Dalpiaz, Akron-Canton's director of marketing and air service development.

"When you have only a handful of carriers making decisions, you run out of options if they say no or decide they don't fit," she said.

A string of consolidations began in 2001, when American acquired TWA. In 2013, American became even larger when it merged with U.S. Airways. That deal benefited Akron-Canton because American maintained U.S. Airways' local service and added destinations.

The deal that hurt Akron-Canton most was Southwest's purchase of AirTran Airlines. During the 1990s, AirTran developed as a low-cost carrier and grew to serve multiple destinations from Akron-Canton. AirTran's growth drove Akron-Canton's record-setting passenger totals.

After Southwest absorbed AirTran, it gradually eliminated routes at Akron-Canton and other airports around the country. Dalpiaz said Southwest cut or eliminated service in 21 markets that had been served by AirTran.

 

Low-cost carrier switch

 

Consolidation also impacted Cleveland Hopkins, which lost its status as an airline hub in 2013. After a few years of sliding numbers, Hopkins rebounded when low-cost carriers started to fill the void.

Allegiant Air is one of the low-cost carriers that moved into Hopkins. The airline specializes in vacation trips, and for a short time offered service to several destinations from Akron-Canton. But Allegiant moved to Cleveland after Spirit Airlines, another low-cost carrier, began flights from Akron.

Frontier Airlines also once offered service at Akron-Canton, but opted to concentrate its flights in Cleveland.

Brach Crider, an air service consultant with Mead & Hunt, said airline consolidation had a bigger impact on smaller airports. Akron-Canton is among several around the country that saw service reduced.

The situation is beginning to change as airlines are starting to see profits after years of restructuring, he said.

An example would be United Airlines adding service from Akron-Canton to Houston, said Crider, who consults with Akron-Canton. The route performed well for United, so the airline has upgraded to a 70-seat airplane.

 

Not enough pilots

 

An aging workforce and federal regulations have combined to create a shortage of pilots qualified for commercial airline service.

Mills said the pilot shortage could extend for another 10 years. Federal regulations increased the number of flying hours needed for commercial airline pilots, so it takes longer for a pilot to achieve certification.

The pilot shortage hinders an airline's efforts to add routes, including routes that are profitable, Mills said.

Dalpiaz said new service can be delayed because the airline needs to hire pilots, as well as find mechanics and technicians.

Because of the airplane maintenance worker shortage, Dalpiaz said, Akron-Canton is researching the possibility of launching an air frame and power plant maintenance program to train future mechanics.

 

Future possibilities

 

Dalpiaz said Akron-Canton officials routinely meet with airlines to discuss current service and the possibility for adding service at the airport.

The industry has one new airline planning to begin flights next year. Moxy is the working name for an airline being developed by David Neeleman, who helped launch JetBlue, Azul airline in Brazil and two other airlines. The company already has ordered 60 Airbus A220 planes that would carry 110 passengers.

Moxy wants to serve smaller markets. It plans to bypass hubs with flights between secondary airports. Dalpiaz said Akron-Canton has talked with the upstart and knows what it wants.

Business travel

While Akron-Canton's total passenger numbers have dropped, the number of people traveling for business has remained healthy, Crider said. He commended Akron-Canton officials for working with local companies and knowing where they send employees on business.

"That information is very helpful when building a business case with the airlines," said Crider, who works with Akron-Canton officials as they prepare their pitch to airlines.

Business travel is more consistent and can provide a passenger base for the large carriers. The airline can rely on regular use and business travelers that aren't as sensitive about costs, Crider said.

Dalpiaz said knowing where local businesses need to travel helped secure service to Houston. The route also attracts vacation travelers who use the Houston hub to connect with flights to Mexico, other Central American counties and South America, she said.

 

Enticements

 

Like many other businesses, airlines will look for incentives when considering a potential route. That is where Akron-Canton is at a disadvantage, because its options are restricted.

Seven states — including Indiana and Michigan — have formal state air service incentive programs used to entice airlines, while 11 others have ad hoc incentive programs. Ohio doesn't have a program, although there have been talks with legislators about developing one.

Generally, incentive programs are used during the first two years to help an airline establish service. The assistance gives the airlines time to determine if a route will be successful.

"You need time to prove a market," Dalpiaz said.

There are some federal programs that can be used as incentives, but those have more restrictions. There can be competition to get the federal money, and plans also require the airport to provide some sort of matching funds.

"It's almost become an expectation that something is offered," Crider said.