Air travel used to be a luxury of the wealthy. A trip to the airport was a special occasion, and passengers, some might remember, actually used to dress for the voyage as if the plane seat were a church pew.
As flights became more available to the middle class, going to the airport became as ordinary as a trip to the supermarket. With the runaway popularity of discount carriers like Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier, and the plethora of deals to be found on any number of travel Web sites, this trend is only increasing. Despite the dip in air travel after 9/11, there were 100 million more domestic and international flights last year than there were in 2000. Global commercial aviation revenues for 2007 are expected to top $473 billion, up from $449 billion in 2006, according to Travel Industry Association of America.
This air-travel accessibility is at the heart of the reason why Burke Lakefront Airport will remain open as an airport and the 600 acres around it will be developed into an "aerotropolis," as Cleveland Director of Port Control Ricky Smith referred to it during a packed power-broker lunch in September at Cleveland law firm Jones Day.
There, Smith and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson laid out their vision for Burke and Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to an audience of influence-makers such as KeyCorp Chairman and CEO Henry Meyer, National City Chairman and CEO David Daberko, insurance magnate Umberto Fideli, financier Jamie Ireland and Plain Dealer Publisher Terry Egger, who was joined by his new editor, Maria Goldberg, in the dark, burnished wood Jones Day dining room with more than 200 corporate attorneys, who no doubt spend many expensive hours in airports and on planes.
"Cleveland's airport system is a major lifeline to commerce," Jackson argued. "My charge to Director Smith has been and will continue to be to position Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and Burke Lakefront Airport for the future."
But few specifics were delivered by Smith or Jackson as to how Burke and its surrounding land would be developed — acreage that could include the city's municipal parking lot, the Bluffs and other public parcels along downtown's eastern shoreline. Smith, former deputy director of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and its charter counterpart, Martin State Airport, and his managers are working on a master plan for Hopkins and Burke, an 18-month venture that should project out to 2030.
Located on prime lakefront property in a city where you must be a wealthy homeowner or on a boat to enjoy an Erie view, the future of Burke has been in doubt for years, even before Cleveland's downtown housing boom. "Mixed-use" was the phrase Smith offered to explain Burke's future non-aviation purposes. When pressed, Smith said he would consider retail, restaurants and office space for the land, but it will remain a general service airport. Moreover, to close Burke would cost the city $1 billion to build the extra capacity at Hopkins to support the added traffic. Burke services about 80,000 flights a year.
"This is not unique to Cleveland," said Smith. "Other municipalities have had this same situation."
Indeed, the famous story of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sending an army of bulldozers to his city's Meigs Field lakefront airport in the middle of the night in 2003 to create a New Age park was championed by those in Northeast Ohio, who wanted to see Burke redeveloped into a residential and recreational community — a tiny version of Chicago's Gold Coast.
But with a shrinking population, a glut of housing and a host of new downtown housing developments, it's not clear downtown could support such a massive waterfront development. And the quality of the land Burke is built on (a mix of city garbage and lake dredgings, according to EcoCity Cleveland) may not be suitable for habitation or recreation.
What Smith and Jackson are sure of is their airports continue to be major assets for the city, despite the budget deficit Burke runs every year. Although airport profits are reinvested or returned to airline carriers, the taxes generated go to the city — that is, when they are collected. (It was revealed in March that more than $5 million in taxes had not been collected from Hopkins' food service provider since 1990, an issue Smith only referenced by saying his management team would continue to "enforce lease agreements" with its partners.)
Burke's growth, as well as that of Hopkins, however, is the largest local example of the increase of not only air travel, but air commerce as well. Johnston Aviation Co., at the formerly sleepy Lorain County Regional Airport, is building at least 24 fully heated condominium hangars with bathrooms and pilot lounges due to demand. Elsewhere, a plan to extend Cuyahoga County Airport's runway into Willoughby Hills was scrapped, but county commissioners still want to pursue expansion. Meanwhile, in Lake County, its commissioners are seeking federal funding to acquire Lost Nation Municipal Airport, formerly operated by the City of Willoughby, for $2.8 million, citing the need to retain the airport to remain economically competitive.
And anyone who has shopped for airfare recently has no doubt clicked on Akron-Canton Regional Airport. In 2006, the Green-based airport broke its all time passenger record for the fifth consecutive year with more than 1.4 million passengers and opened a four-gate passenger concourse. In contrast, Hopkins served 11.3 million passengers last year.
With all the interest in regional aviation activity, Continental Airlines President Jeffrey Smisek's comments during the Jones Day lunch were almost an afterthought. The previous week, the Houston-based airline carrier announced it would grow its capacity at Hopkins by 40 percent over a two-year period, adding 50 new flights and 20 new nonstop destinations by next summer. The week following this announcement, Continental received preliminary approval from federal regulators to begin flights from its Newark hub through Cleveland to Shanghai, China. Other major carriers were also given the green light for direct China flights.
"I hope you will all fly with us," Smisek told the audience, adding, "If not, you can leave the room," perhaps an attempt to ease any tension created by facing some of the world's toughest litigators.
It's safe to assume that expansion at the region's airports will continue regardless of who holds which office. Collaboration, however, is unlikely. When asked if Jackson would ever work with Akron-Canton Airport on a partnership, the mayor did not offer a flat refusal, but he did reiterate the airports are two of his best financial assets in a city where dollars are scarce.
"I would ask our business owners in here," Jackson responded when questioned about relinquishing control over his airports. "Would you give up a profitable part of your business?"