Did Burke Lakefront Airport Miscalculations Add to Hopkins Hub Troubles in Cleveland?

2015-02-15T14:58:38-05:00February 4, 2014|

By Daniel J. McGraw

Last month I flew back to Cleveland from Austin, Texas, and landed at Hopkins International Airport at about 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. I usually don’t like to burden anyone with picking me up (it’s a request up there with asking someone to help you move in terms of the “owe you one” factor) because I live close enough to an RTA redline stop in Lakewood and cab fare isn’t that much. But I didn’t have a direct flight and was fairly tired and it was just so cold in Cleveland and I was lazy so I arranged for my brother to pick me up.

My brother is good at airport pickup efficiencies (he has three college-age kids), so I asked him if he knew a good place for us to meet that would get him through traffic easier and decrease the “owe you one” factor for me. He told me to just meet him in front of the terminal where the cabs and the rental car buses and limousines do their business. “There’s no one there at that time of night,” he said.

And he was right. As I walked through the concourse, most of the restaurants and newsstands and concession stores were closed and it seemed that the only people walking the concourses in Hopkins were the people on my flight. Little traffic outside either. Off the plane and in the car and out on I-71 in a few minutes. At 9 p.m on a Wednesday.

A few decades ago, Hopkins was a fairly busy airport. Not in terms of the numbers at O’Hare in Chicago or Hartsfield in Atlanta or DFW in Texas, but certainly not like some place you always have to change planes to get to.  And it was a place that took a lot of pre-planning to get in and out of. I know about this. I drove a cab in Cleveland many years ago.

But the population loss in the region—along with changes in economics and the airlines’ ever-changing business models—has rendered Hopkins International Airport far less busy than it used to be. So when United Airlines announced this week that it was dropping Hopkins as a hub and cancelling about 60 percent of its flights, no one should have been shocked. Nobody there means nobody flying.

But Mayor Frank Jackson and the corporate cheerleaders acted as if United’s actions were indeed shocking.  Jackson asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to see if United can really close its hub in Cleveland, and U.S. Representative Jim Renacci (R-Wadworth) blamed United’s decision on the Obama administration. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said United’s Cleveland hub was “one of the best in the nation.”

Senator Brown did not say what he was basing his “best” designation on. But it is pretty obvious he wasn’t basing his comments on numbers. From 2000 to 2012, the number of annual flight operations at Hopkins have declined from about 332,000 to 181,000, a decline that began well before the United merger with Continental in 2010. The number of passengers flying annually at Hopkins have gone down dramatically as well, from about 6.3 million in 2000 to 4.3 million in 2012.

When the merger was being reviewed in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible antitrust issues, the Government Accountability Office found that 52 of the 63 domestic cities served by Continental from Cleveland were also served by United from Chicago. That’s why they merged. There was big decline in passengers at Hopkins, and a big hub for United 350 miles away. Pretty basic business sense.

[blocktext align=”left”]But when you look at Cleveland and how they operate their airport, you come to the conclusion that someone must not be paying attention to the realities of the aviation transportation system and the airline business market now and how it might change in the future. [/blocktext]The feds put some restrictions on the merged airlines’ ability to reduce service at Hopkins for two years, but there was no doubt that the United/Continental execs were watching the calendar closely. But the political and business leadership apparently weren’t watching the numbers very closely. At his press conference yesterday, Mayor Jackson said United’s hub shutdown would provide “new opportunities for growth” at Hopkins. Cleveland Port Control Director Ricky Smith, who is in charge of airport operations for the city, said that Cleveland was a “very strong market” in aviation.

But when you look at Cleveland and how they operate their airport, you come to the conclusion that someone must not be paying attention to the realities of the aviation transportation system and the airline business market now and how it might change in the future. Hopkins has higher landing fees for airlines than other airports of similar size, and its overall cost per flight operation is almost double those of Cincinnati and Columbus and Milwaukee.

A study by USA Today last year found that prices for airfare had gone up 14.5 percent at Hopkins since 2005 (about twice the average), and the number of seats available had declined by 29.3 percent. That’s basic economics: less passengers means less flights which means less choice which means higher fares.

The concessions at Hopkins are run so poorly that a trade association found that the Hopkins deal with their concessions operator generates $2 million less than a similar deal at the airport in Indianapolis, even though Indianapolis flies almost one million fewer passengers per year than Cleveland. So there aren’t many people flying out of Hopkins, and the ones who are don’t spend very much.

In 2011, Mayor Jackson laid out a plan for the city to spend $1.6 billion in improvements at Hopkins because of what he termed a “strong local market.” The city based the need to spend that much money on the idea that the number of flights and passengers at Hopkins would increase dramatically in coming years; a 2010 study by the city predicted that both flight operations and number of passengers would more than double by 2035.

“This is a demand-driven process, which means if there is no demand there is no investment,” he said at a noontime news conference at the airport. “Our goal is to create a highly competitive facility so we can be competitive nationally and internationally.”

Not a study that said that the decline over the past 10 years or so might stabilize. Not a study that indicated that perhaps the city can get by with the current infrastructure it has. No, the City of Cleveland thinks it needs $1.6 billion of improvement to handle the big rush of passengers and airlines coming to Hopkins.

The obvious conclusion is that Cleveland business and political leaders have not come to the realization that the region has declined and planning and spending must be adjusted accordingly. And if the numbers indicating the decline at Hopkins haven’t got the attention of the leadership, it is more mind boggling that the city hasn’t noticed the numbers coming out of Burke Lakefront Airport. Because the city thinks that 450 acres of prime lakefront property downtown is needed to be used as an airport because it can handle the spillover from all those passengers and flights at Hopkins.

[blocktext align=”right”]But most don’t know how big 450 acres really is. The Burke property could fit three 18-hole golf course on it. Six Crocker Parks. One Cedar Point with about 90 acres left over.[/blocktext]Yes, even though Hopkins and Burke are both operating at about 54 percent of what they were in 2000, and even though Burke costs the city about $2 million a year to operate (and those costs are indirectly passed on to the airlines at Hopkins), and even though one would think that downtown development and lakefront access might be important for all sorts of reasons, Cleveland officials still think Burke is needed.

A key question is what would you do with 450 acres if it was not used for an airport. I won’t speculate on how much money the city could get from selling the property, but everyone agrees that it hits nine figures. But most don’t know how big 450 acres really is. The Burke property could fit three 18-hole golf course on it. Six Crocker Parks. One Cedar Point with about 90 acres left over.

Even though Hopkins is no longer a hub, and passenger traffic will likely keep going down, and there are plenty of other airports to absorb Burke’s declining traffic, the prime property in downtown Cleveland must be used as an airport. An airport where nearly half of its business is for pilot flight schools.


First, a little background on this story. We approached the City of Cleveland to get some basic info on operations at Burke in early December (basically who was flying in and out of the airport), and it took them almost 2 months to process what we considered a fairly simple request (finally sent to Belt in part on January 31). At the same time, we asked to interview Mayor Jackson or airport systems director Ricky Smith and got no response.

When the news that United was moving 60 percent of its flights out of Cleveland was leaked on the day after we received the public info on Burke, we decided to push this story forward quickly. I mention this only because we might have been able to wait several weeks to gain interviews with the Mayor or anyone else he designated, and will still do so if the city is so inclined. But in this first week of February, we have not been able to schedule any interview with them on this subject. And again, the offer still stands.

There has been talk of closing Burke for many years, but that talk is often shot down quickly. In 2007, Mayor Frank Jackson laid it out succinctly saying that closing Burke would not even be considered, and that the airport would be an anchor of economic development along the lakefront. He has repeated that ever since.

Port director Ricky Smith summed up the mayor’s thinking in an interview on WCPN-FM in 2007: “If Burke closes and that traffic all goes to either Hopkins or it goes to [Cuyahoga County Airport] or some other airports. The other airports don’t have the capacity to handle the kind of aircraft that operates at Burke and the amount of aircraft. So, yes, it would impact Cleveland Hopkins. And that’s a major reason why we wouldn’t want to close Burke.”

In 2010, local attorney Anthony Coyne, longtime chair of the city’s planning commission, wrote an op-ed for The Plain Dealer expressing the same sentiments. “Studies undertaken in the past 3 years point to Burke’s function as an effective reliever to Hopkins,” Coyne wrote. “In short, Burke enables Hopkins to maintain efficient and safe flight schedules.”

So Cleveland’s plan for Burke is to keep it open, and do some development on the fringes. One small development (office buildings) is being done on the southwest corner of Burke (closest to East 9th Street and the Shoreway), and the city is also encouraging development on a small piece of port property formerly used for cargo unloading north of FirstEnergy Stadium. But what the developers can do on those properties is severely limited because of FAA airspace restrictions.

“It is very difficult to do anything very profitable on those two properties because of the FAA approval needed on any design,” said one local developer who didn’t want his named used. “You can’t go more than five or six stories, and given the cost of the property because of the proximity to the lake, it’s going to be tough to do.”

The city has three reasons they point to as why Burke cannot be closed and developed, and the first is Ricky Smith’s reasoning that it is needed to keep Hopkins runways clear. The second is that the FAA would never let the city close the airport, and the third is that Burke is built on polluted landfill and nothing could ever be built there. The first is now patently false, the second is a grey area, and the third is mostly false.

The fact that Burke is needed as an airport that takes smaller aircraft away from Hopkins and keeps it open for airline use is no longer even remotely true.

In 2000, Burke and Hopkins and Cuyahoga County Airport in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs (12 miles east of downtown) had a combined total of 497,497 flights. In 2013, that number had dropped to 264,535. All three airports have lost a similar percentage of use, but the key figure is that the three airports are operating at 53 percent of what they were in 2000.

The FAA also calculates in their studies what would be the highest possible capacity for airports under their current configuration. The total number of flights these three airports could handle annually right now would be about 800,000. So the current usage is about one-third of what those three airports could handle.

Part of the problem is the FAA estimates. The federal agency does planning studies annually and they often overestimate long-term passenger counts and flights. In 2007, for example, the FAA predicted Hopkins would have 5.3 million passengers in 2012 (off by one million) and 273,000 flight operations (off by about 100,000). The city uses those FAA numbers (and often extrapolates them to get larger numbers), and then uses those in their planning.

“The FAA has never underestimated, and quite frankly, rarely even gets its predictions right about future airport use,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research organization and think tank. “You have to remember that they get bigger budgets and have more people working in that department when they forecast higher traffic.”

“It’s not in the FAA’s best interest to say that some regions of the country might be showing a decline (in aviation use),” Poole said. “But for Cleveland to use those numbers isn’t very smart, because airports can cost a city a lot of money.”

In Burke’s case, the city’s 2008 plan for the lakefront airport predicted that it would have about 90,000 operations in 2016. This past year was 54,596, so it looks like they were off by about 30,000. But even that number is deceiving.

The FAA groups flight into categories, and one of them is “local.” That means an airplane takes off and lands at either the same airport or one close by. A very large percentage of these local flights (more than 90 percent by some estimates) are for flight schools. At Burke, in 2013, 21,754 of the 54,596 total flight operations were “local.” That works out to close to 40 percent of the Burke operations being flight schools.

[blocktext align=”left”]So for the sake of argument, the FAA is counting 18,000 takeoffs and landings at Burke that don’t really happen. So the number of annual flights at Burke gets reduced down to 36,000. [/blocktext]But here is how that is deceiving. Flight training sessions almost always have touch-and-go runs, where the plane comes close to or lands briefly on the runway and then takes off again. Each touch-and-go landing counts as its own flight operation in FAA stats. An operator of a flight school at Burke (who didn’t want his name used) said each session usually has about 10 to 15 touch-and-go landings. What that means is that the 21,000 flight school takeoffs and landings for “local” flights are about one-tenth of that.

So for the sake of argument, the FAA is counting 18,000 takeoffs and landings at Burke that don’t really happen. So the number of annual flights at Burke gets reduced down to 36,000. Easily absorbed at Hopkins or Cuyahoga County or the 14 other airports operating within a one hour radius of Burke.


The issue of the dirt Burke was built upon has also been raised repeatedly as a reason Burke could never be closed. While there would likely be environmental impact studies needed to assess if, say, housing was developed on any part of the 450 acres, the studies already completed indicate there is not much of a hazard in the landfill that Burke was built upon.

Cleveland was among the early leaders in aviation planning, and in 1927 the city announced plans to operate some type of airport facility on the lakefront in the area where ships were unloaded. The thought was to have hydroplanes land in the lake and then be able to unload passenger and cargo at the shore.

According to a 2002 report done for a partnership of the Cleveland Waterfront Coalition and EcoCity Cleveland, the city eventually decided to build airport facilities on land. In the late 1940s, the city brought in fill to build the airport; most of it was from construction projects like road and building construction and some was from river dredgings. At the far eastern end of the property, on about 20 acres (out of the total of 450), a garbage dump operated for about 10 years. It last received solid garbage waste in 1957, according to the report.

In 1987, the Ohio EPA did an environmental assessment of Burke and found that levels of pollution were well within government standards. “The Ohio EPA concluded that they could not find evidence of any hazardous material ever being disposed of at this location, and that most of the material was construction and demolition debris, mixed with some garbage,” the report said.

In 1992, the city hired a firm to do its own environmental assessment and came to similar conclusions. The city wanted to see if outdoor maintenance and lawn care workers would have any risk working at Burke. The firm found that pollutants—including methane—were within acceptable limits. Also in 1992, “the Ohio EPA informed the City that they concurred with the conclusion of the risk assessment. OEPA also concluded that the assessment had been performed using very conservative estimates and assumptions,” according to the report.

When the argument is used that Burke can’t be developed because of landfill problems, people within the Cleveland area miss a very important point: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, FirstEnergy Stadium, and the Great Lakes Science Center were all built upon a similar landfill. So the thought that Burke cannot support any development either because the landfill wouldn’t be strong enough to support a large structure or that the landfill is polluted so badly that its only possible use is as an airport is disingenuous.


In order to close Burke, the FAA would have to buy in. And when one starts reading the rules and regulations the FAA has on the books about airport closings, it seems very complicated. But the decision would involve politics and, as anyone who has studied politics knows, decisions are made not so much on rules but exceptions to the rules.

The most important FAA rule on airport closings is the 20-year funding rule. If an airport has received any money from the federal government, it cannot close without FAA approval for 20 years after they receive the funds. Burke has received about $11 million from the FAA in 2013 for runway improvement, so logic says that the FAA wouldn’t even consider closing Burke until 2033.

There are other rules that apply (how you can use the money if you sell the federal-funded airport and the need to show the region can survive without it), but the 20-year rule is usually used as the excuse as to why the city should not even consider closing Burke. But lawyers involved in aviation issues say you should read the fine print.

The regulations have tons of legalese but all of them end with each case being decided on a “case-by-case” basis and that, ultimately, the decision lies with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Translated into common language, this means that with political weight any airport can be closed if the local leadership mobilizes and jumps through a few hoops.

“The FAA is a political animal, and the more politicians you have on your side the better when dealing with an airport closing,” said California attorney Steven Taber, who specializes in legal aviation issues. “The FAA does not make it easy to close airports, but it is not all black and white as many think.”

In 2003, Mayor Richard Daley closed Meigs Field Airport on Lake Michigan in Chicago by just moving in and bulldozing the runways. At first there were threats by the feds that they would fence in and padlock the property, but a deal was worked out where Chicago would pay off a small percentage of the amount of money the federal government had invested in Meigs Field. The airport is now being developed as a lakefront park.

Kansas City closed Richards Gebaur Memorial Airport in 2001 after pleading to the FAA that the airport was not needed and was losing money. Like Burke, Richards Gebauer Aiport was a reliever airport that had mostly single engine planes along with flight school instruction. Again, a deal with the FAA was worked out to pay off some of the federal funding.

Closer to home, Cincinnati closed the city-owned Blue Ash Airport in 2012 and sold its 130 acres to the city of Blue Ash for $38.5 million. The airport was founded in 1921 in what is now an area near the intersection of I-71 and I-275. Cincinnati didn’t like the $190,000 net loss the airport was costing them, and also worked with Blue Ash in getting a deal done. The 130 acres is now being developed as a public park by the city of Blue Ash, and will have a live performing stage, sled riding during the winter, an indoor recreation facility and trails through a wooded area. Blue Ash funded the project through a small voter-approved income tax increase.

“We had a very good relationship with the FAA on closing the aiport, in part because we were able to show them the airport wasn’t needed and that there was a loss to the taxpayers in operating the airport,” said John Curp, an attorney for the city of Cincinnati.

And that is how United closing its hub and reducing service at Hopkins plays into the seemingly unrelated issue of closing Burke. The Cleveland Airport System is a self-sustaining department within the city, meaning it must support itself on the revenue it brings in for service rendered. If United cuts their flights by 60 percent as they say they will, Hopkins still has basic costs to take care of because these costs don’t go down in direct proportion.

The Reason Foundation’s Poole wrote a paper about the Cleveland airports in 2010 and came to the conclusion that the removal of the Contintental/United hub would have a devastating effect on the costs of keeping Hopkins open.

“A drastic down-sizing of the Continental hub at CLE would have serious consequences for Cleveland. First, unless the airport management could quickly find replacement carriers, it would be faced with a lot of excess capacity,” Poole wrote. “And unless the management moved quickly to cut costs, it could find itself in the troubling situation of having to increase rates and charges (to avoid operating at a loss) at the very time that its marketing efforts would require lower charges so as to be more competitive.”

The argument the city of Cleveland could use to have the FAA waive the 20-year rule is that Hopkins could become more economically viable if Burke was closed (saving $2 million or so a year), and that saving could be reinvested in Hopkins. The city could also pledge that a percentage of money gained from selling Burke could be used for upgrades at Hopkins and the lowering of landing fees to attract other airlines.

That sounds like a stretch but it is not.

“The city could make the case to the FAA that closing Burke would be a good deal for the aviation industry in Northeast Ohio because it would be beneficial in terms of costs for operating Hopkins, and how those savings could be passed on to the airlines and ultimately the consumer,” said Peter Kirsch, an aviation issues lawyer in Chicago. “It would be an uphill battle in some respects, but I think the FAA would listen.”

[blocktext align=”right”]Hell, the city hasn’t even studied what would happen if they did close it, things like how much the land might sell for, how much the city would gain in taxes, what type of parks might be built, etc.[/blocktext]“And if the mayor and the governor and the Ohio congressional delegation all got behind this, and made it public that the city could save the taxpayers and the consumers money, the issue would have legs to it because government spending and government waste are huge issues right now,” Kirsch said. “But you don’t get anything unless you ask for it.”

At this point, as far as anyone can tell, Mayor Frank Jackson has not asked any state or federal elected officials to see which way the wind might be blowing these days on whether Burke could be closed. Hell, the city hasn’t even studied what would happen if they did close it, things like how much the land might sell for, how much the city would gain in taxes, what type of parks might be built, etc.

“I think the problem right now is people feel there are other projects the city has to deal with, like redesigning public square and the Metroparks taking over the state lakefront parks and other urban redevelopment projects,” said David Beach, director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Musuem of Natural History. “The mayor has indicated that he has no interest in closing Burke, so I think most people don’t think it is an issue to put much effort into.”

“Maybe if people know those numbers about how Burke is really not used much anymore that will get people more interested,” Beach said.


Last September, the city of Cleveland held their “BKL Corporate Aviation Expo” at Burke Airport. I had never been to a government sponsored event in all my years in journalism (25 and counting) where there was a free open bar, and not just beer and wine, but hard liquor as well. There was smoked salmon on a platter and wine and cheese and all sorts of expensive looking food. In my younger days I would have called all my friends, yelling “free drinks at Burke!” into the phone, but I was kind of in shock. I had never seen a public agency pay for booze.

(I got the info last week that the city paid the Barley House bar $683.11 for the alcohol, $4,850.42 to the catering service, and $500 to the jazz combo. Of course, that $6,033.53 was paid for by the passengers who use Hopkins International Airport in one way or another.)

I loaded up on the free food, and then saw Mayor Frank Jackson outside by himself leaning up against a plane. I introduced myself and started asking him why the city still needed this outmoded airport on a prime piece of property. He was polite, but didn’t want to talk. I asked him if he could just give me some examples of businesses in downtown Cleveland that were there because of the proximity to plane service. He told me to ask one of the PR people.

I asked that night and have asked a few times since and still haven’t been given an example of downtown businesses for which the airport is an important amenity and a reason they are located in downtown Cleveland.

The speaker was scheduled to be Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner. But he had cancelled at the last minute (his college-age son was having knee surgery, the crowd of less than 100 was told). The Browns’ President, Alec Sheiner, substituted for Banner and talked about how the Browns would win the Super Bowl soon. Sheiner was then presented with a plaque. He posed with Frank Jackson and Ricky Smith for pictures. The plaque given to Sheiner had Joe Banner’s name on it.

I talked to some flight school operators who told me they do their flying lessons out of other smaller airports, but like Burke because of its location and the cheaper landing fees ($5). I told one of the flight school operators that Burke cost the city of Cleveland about $2 million a year to operate. He laughed and said, “I’m usually a fiscal conservative, but not in this case.”

On my way out, I looked out on the runways and remembered that Burke was once host to car races, but those had stopped in 2007. The air show had been cancelled last summer because of the government shutdown, and some had wondered if the federal funding would be there in coming years to bring the Air Force Thunderbirds or the Navy Blue Angels to the shores of Lake Erie. In the terminal, the ticket counters were still there even though scheduled commercial service hadn’t been operating since 1990.

But in the terminal I saw something that was sort of ironic in the whole scheme of things. A clock was hanging down from the ceiling in the terminal and it said it was three o’clock. But it was really about 7:30. I wondered how long the clock had been stopped at three. It could have been a long time, because few people wander around that terminal concourse anymore.

A lot of jokes and cynicism ran through my head. But then I thought what Mayor Frank Jackson might tell me. He would probably shrug his shoulders and tell me at least the clock is right twice a day. And his staff and city council would probably tell him there is no need to fix the clock because it has always been that way.

Daniel J. McGraw is a Lakewood freelance journalist and author.

Photos Bob Perkoski

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  1. Matt February 4, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Great in depth article! I’m bookmarking beltmag for more of this.

  2. CLEUnitedIsGoingPlaces February 4, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    This is dead-on, Mr McGraw. Great points. Great article. Great read. If only the P.D. took the time to dig up this kind of info. My only question is…do you think they will convert Concourse D. into a bowling alley or an “Executive’s Den”?

    Keep up the great work, Belt Mag.

    -Ronald in Ravenna

  3. Mike Burkons February 4, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    Great article. I know Burke is owned by the City of Cleveland but I would love to hear to hear what Candidates for County Executives as well as Fitz think.

    Developing these 450 acres will have a larger positive impact on the region than the convention center and browns stadium combined.

  4. Dan McGraw February 5, 2014 at 12:53 am

    Thanks Mike. It would be huge. One thing I wanted to mention here that I have seen pop up in comments on other social media regarding this article. Some have said that Burke can’t close because the Federal Reserve bank uses it to fly in paper checks every night to process. That’s hasn’t been happening since 2007 (the check processing was transferred to Richmond Va.) but for some reason people have it ingrained in their heads that an airport would be forced to stay open because of paper check processing. The other is that the local hospitals like UH and Cle Clinic use Burke for lifesaving med transportation. Life saving emergency operations are handled by helicopter and all of the hospitals have those facilities. Organs for transplants last for days in cooler storage. So the hospitals do use Burke, but it is for a convenience that saves them 20-30 minutes, but not for any life saving emergency purposes. It is true that the Cle Clinic likes having Burke for some of their patient service and corporate flights, but people should ask if 450 acres of prime land should be kept open so a hospital can save 30 minutes for travel time that makes no difference on patient care..

    • Mike Burkons February 5, 2014 at 11:28 am

      Thanks for the reply.

      I am grateful for this type of journalism. The powers that be have a large platform to get their message out and it is rare that well crafted responses like yours get many eyeballs. Scene has really picked up their game in the last year as far as good investigative journalism and I hope that both you and Scene start getting more attention as it seems like only a few reporters at the PD are given the latitude to cover this stuff.

      BTW, I used to live downtown and I could always get to Hopkins in under 20 mins. The excuses for medical and check processing are weak. Thanks for pointing this out.

  5. JJ1978 February 5, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Is a compromise possible? There is a North and South Runway. Development on south side of airport is restricted by runway clearance requirements. If Burke were to shut down south runway, how much property could be opened up for development and park space?

    The city is currently converting Aviation High School into an $8 Million+ operations facility for airport operations, what a waste. One of the greatest things about the “Old Burke” was a functioning Aviation High School. Kids and locals were able to utilize the airport through the school, races, airshows, air races, etc. Now what?

  6. Jason Segedy February 5, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    This is an informative piece about an interesting topic. Thanks for writing it.

    It would have been valuable to have heard something about the role of that the rise of the Akron-Canton Airport has played in the continued evolution of Cleveland-Hopkins Airport, and the overall dynamic of the region’s air travel market. – a market which extends far beyond Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.

    A healthy and collegial “coopetition” between Cleveland-Hopkins and Akron-Canton is likely to be an important part of the region’s (air) transportation future. Perhaps this dynamic could be explored in a follow-up piece.

    Our region continues to be blessed with two viable commercial airports – each serving a specific niche in the market. Learning how to more effectively leverage both assets will not only bring us closer together as a region, but will serve to ensure that the air travel needs of Northeast Ohio’s residents can continue to be met as effectively as possible.

    • Dan McGraw February 5, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks for the compliment Jason. You are right on that. Just got off the Triv Show on WTAM 1100 with Cleveland mayoral candidate Ken Lanci and the subject of a regional approach to air service came up. At the very least, the two airports could get a shuttle bus up and running between the two. It is an hour travel time, and you could serve at least some travelers by giving them better choices and prices if they have to connect. It would also help people living in the Akron and Cleveland areas some better transportation options. But even something that simple is not likely to happen. because the reality of it is that the people running Hopkins (city of Cleveland) think anyone using Akron-Canton instead of Hopkins is taking money out of their pocket. So the first order of business is to put them into one agency, and good luck with getting that done.

  7. Brandon February 6, 2014 at 1:26 am

    Dan, great investigating reporting! I’m a Clevelander who currently lives in Chicago and your article is the best article I’ve read about Cleveland since 2002 when Steve Litt wrote about Peter B. Lewis in the Cleveland Plain Dealer! Your article was very informative, unbiased, and well written. However, it really left me wondering what Cleveland will look like twenty years from now. Your encounter with Mayor Jackson, the city’s inability to submit public records in a timely manner, and the misinformation concerning the Burke airport really paint an unfavorable picture of city officials who are disillusioned. The United departure reminds me of the time when TRW left town. All of the local politicians down played TRW’s departure as if nothing had changed, but over a decade later, the region still hasn’t fully recovered from the void TRW’s departure left and I regrettably feel that the United’s departure will do the same. Your stats about both the airports running less than 50% capacity is a glaring stat that truly demonstrates Cleveland’s spiraling downfall. It will be very difficult for any air carrier to see those stats for attractive reasons to increase their flights out of Hopkins. I just hope that some of the city leaders will use your article as a tool to craft a vision and make the necessary changes of consolidate the airports operations in order to move the city forward!

    • Dan McGraw February 6, 2014 at 10:03 am

      Thanks Brandon. I don’t think the United leaving Hopkins is as big a deal as some people make it out to be for a number of reasons that I’ll not waste everyone’s time with. Basically, all the airlines are having a hard time sorting out their short haul runs, and I think the market will take care of things with a combination of rail, express inter city bus service, private jet leasing, and a few others. But one thing Cleveland must change that is a problem will all cities of its size and age. the older leadership like to give their reasons for doing things as “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I see that a lot around Cleveland in many ways, and it never works. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a good reason(s) why the Burke property should be kept as an airport, but the political leadership always follows that up with “but there’s been an airport there for 60 years so no reason to not have it.” That’s a pet peeve of mine on anything, so that’s why an issue like this gets me more crazed than usual. What really gets me extra crazed is that the city has never even done a basic study as to what could happen — good and/or bad — if they did decide to work on closing it.. Hope all is well in Chicago, and stop in at our Hot Dog University and Belt Out events at the Happy Dog (5801 Detroit Ave.) if you visit the CLE/LAND soon.

      • Eric Deaner February 6, 2014 at 4:57 pm

        I don’t believe in the “unbiased” standard for journalism which Brandon trumpets above, but I hardly see how the author is “unbiased” when he twice credulously quotes at length an “expert” from a self-described “libertarian think tank” the first time to claim that the FAA are all lazy moocher bureaucrats who inflate numbers just to give themselves jobs. I’m reminded of an earlier piece I read by the same author which out of the blue just simply asserted that labor unions are anti-immigrant with absolutely no data or argument to back up that assertion. His pro-big business anti-government bias can be seen again in the fact that he somehow blames United’s departure not on United (or on late capitalism, neoliberalism, or deregulation) but on the Democratic leadership of Cleveland, who were supposed to somehow stop this multi-national corporate behemoth from making the decision that’s best for their bottom line. I don’t know if Mr. McGraw was brought in expressly to interject right wing libertarian viewpoints into the publication or if he’s just decided to leverage his position in order to do so. Either way, he’s fully within his rights to do so, but don’t call it “unbiased”.

        • Anne Trubek February 6, 2014 at 5:32 pm

          Eric: As the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Belt, I can assure you that McGraw cannot “leverage his position” to persuade me to do anything. I also did not “bring him in” because of any purported political position. I commissioned the piece because he is an extraordinary reporter who does not inflate or disregard facts, as well as a fantastic writer.

          I am invested in Belt being a place for diverse opinions and discussions. But it should not be a place for false claims. So I want to clarify, for other readers, what McGraw did say and juxtapose it with what you claim he says. Here is the quote from Poole from the Reason Foundation McGraw includes in the piece:

          “The FAA has never underestimated, and quite frankly, rarely even gets its predictions right about future airport use,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research organization and think tank. “You have to remember that they get bigger budgets and have more people working in that department when they forecast higher traffic. It’s not in the FAA’s best interest to say that some regions of the country might be showing a decline (in aviation use),” Poole said. “But for Cleveland to use those numbers isn’t very smart, because airports can cost a city a lot of money.”

          Here is what you say Dan McGraw claims:

          “the FAA are all lazy moocher bureaucrats who inflate numbers just to give themselves jobs.”

          That is not a fair or accurate summary of the quotes McGraw uses in his piece.

          If you feel the Reason Foundation was using false or inappropriate information to make the point Poole does in the quote, please do provide that evidence. We’re listening.

          Also, if you want to claim the author said something else you find incendiary in another piece, please quote from that piece and explain why it is inaccurate or incorrect.

          –Anne Trubek

          • Eric Deamer February 6, 2014 at 5:54 pm

            I think it’s fairly disingenuous to claim that my (admittedly hyperbolic/colorful)claim is factually incorrect merely because it recasts the Poole claim in different (admittedly hyperbolic/colorful) language. I’ll leave readers to judge the distance in substance if any between what I said and “You have to remember that they get bigger budgets and have more people working in that department when they forecast higher traffic. It’s not in the FAA’s best interest to say that some regions of the country might be showing a decline ”

            If you don’t see the problem with so much reliance on an admittedly libertarian (i.e. pro-privatization anti-government) think tank in a piece partly about the workings of a certain government agency (the FAA) I can’t help you.

            I’ll look for the quote about unions being anti-immigrant.

        • Dan McGraw February 6, 2014 at 6:44 pm

          Eric: Thanks so much for reading this story and your comment. I shared your comment with some family and friends, and they thought your indication that I was brought in “to interject right wing libertarian viewpoints” was very humorous. They have always contended that I bring in my “left wing socialist viewpoints” into my work. Maybe I’m somewhere in the middle. Again, thanks for reading and offering your opinion.

          • Dan McGraw February 6, 2014 at 8:13 pm

            Eric: This was the response of my brother on Facebook to your comment: “Whoa! Yes, I read that on Belt. You better get this all cleaned up before your girlfriend Rachel Maddow hears about this.”

        • Jeffrey February 7, 2014 at 3:02 pm

          this is a very strange comment. someone who self-describes as “radical leftist” defends the (pro-business, very centrist) Cleveland Democratic party and bashes the (very!) anti-business argument that Burke should be closed….because he doesn’t like a referenced source.

          I’m glad most *actual* leftists out there don’t automatically throw out a point of view just because someone they don’t like also holds it. most are better critical thinkers.

  8. John Droescher February 6, 2014 at 9:51 am

    I have a few questions

    First, where do you come up with your numbers that Cleveland has one of the highest landing fees? Are there solid numbers to back that up?
    Second question? You look at numbers of people living in Cleveland, but how many people from the city of Cleveland, actually use the airport. The airport has always been a mechanism for those from the middle class SUBURBS. Do we still not have one of the largest Metropoplitian areas in the country?
    You don’t seem to put any blame on United itself, like they are completely blameless in this game. How do you feel about United telling Cleveland 3 years ago that the hub was profitable, then now telling them they haven’t been profitible for 10 years?

  9. Darrell Clay February 6, 2014 at 10:03 am

    I agree that your article is well researched, though I’m certainly in a different camp regarding Burke’s future. With regard to your statement that “Burke costs the city about $2 million a year to operate (and those costs are indirectly passed on to the airlines at Hopkins) . . .,” aren’t some of those costs paid for by tenants at the airport, including the flight schools and other tenants in the terminal, the Landmark FBO, monthly rent for airplanes that are parked on the ramp, the landing fees the airport imposes, etc. In other words, does the $2 million figure represent the total cost to operate the airport, or only the portion that isn’t covered by operating income? How much of those costs could be defrayed if the city would, for example, invest in hangar space for aircraft at Burke? It’s a substantial investment to purchase an airplane, and insurers give owners a discount on rates for the airplane being hangared. Perhaps if Burke’s infrastructure was more inviting to general aviation owners and operators, more of them would base at Burke and thereby offset operating costs. I learned to fly at Burke and in my view, it’s an underutilized gem that we should be loathe to see go the way of Meigs. Just my $.02.

    • Nikki February 8, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      HHIS I should have thuhogt of that!

  10. Brett February 6, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Two comments. First, this is a very impressive article. Sadly, meaningful journalism seems to be a dying (or dead) art this days. I was, frankly, surprised at the depth and sophistication of the coverage — and right here in Cleveland! Kudos to everyone involved, and thank you for your great work. Second, it appears that until we elect new and credible leadership (a seemingly impossible task), the city is destined to continue its steep decline. The lack of awarenes, lack of vision, and general apathy of Cleveland’s governmental leaders are so pronounced that I can’t help but wonder whether this is about incompetence or whether, for some reason, their motives run contra to the needs of the citizens. Either way, it’s not good for Cleveland.

  11. Dan McGraw February 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Thanks to both of you for commenting and I’ll try to answer the questions raised. Airports try to keep landing fees secretive, and the FAA doesn’t require they make them public. Hopkins landing fees (they are usually based on dollar amounts per 1000 pounds the aircraft weighs) appear to be higher than average based upon several trade association studies done in recent years. But these can be very fluid, as an airport can give one landing fee rate to one airline and another to another. So it it hard to quantify, but from the best info we could get, we have pretty good evidence they are higher than average. No info on how many passengers come from city vs. suburbs. As far as United goes, their merger with Continental and subsequent closing of the CLE hub seemed to be the plan from the get go, as United flights at O’Hare were duplicated by Continental flights from Hopkins. United/Continental made a business decision, but my problem is that Cleveland seems to have done little to prep for this inevitable time when the hub closes up. I just think it is kid of avoiding issues when the city blames United, when the whole point oif the merger was to consolidate their operations at Hopkins and O’Hare. The $2 million deficit at Burke is when landing fees and all revenues are all added up. It may be even higher, as one study done by the city in 2008 indicated that the deficit would be $7.4 million by 2014. So the deficit represents the total cost to operate the airport. My research indicates that Burke is a big loss based on current use, and will be a bigger deficit if operations go down further. But also remember, the losses by Burke must be then absorbed by Hopkins, as the Cleveland Airport System (the dept. name) is a stand alone part of city government and must balance revenues and expenses based upon the profit and loss from both airport. Hope this clears some things up.

  12. Dan McGraw February 6, 2014 at 10:57 am

    John Droescher, I was going through my notes on landing fees and found this study by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy done in 2011.

    “There are two categories of landing fees; for signatory and for non-signatory airlines. A signatory airline has entered into a specific lease agreement with that airport. Fees for signatory airlines are typically lower than for non-signatory airlines. Charges are quoted in dollars per 1,000 pounds. Of the ten airports in the sample, Cleveland-Hopkins (CLE) signatory landing fees ($4.65) are nearly twice the sample average and rank as the highest by a substantial margin. The lowest signatory landing fees are found at Dallas’ Love Field ($1.50). PIT’s signatory landing fees ($3.5147) are below only CLE and Greater Cincinnati (CVG–$3.998) and are significantly above most of the other airports in the sample standing 34 percent higher than the sample average of $2.606. “

  13. River24 February 7, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Fantastic article. It’s refreshing to read an article based on thorough research and detailed statistics. I can honestly say it changed my opinion on keeping Burke open.

    • Dan McGraw February 7, 2014 at 11:58 am

      Thanks River24. If you like detailed statistics, here are some more. Here is the salary for airport director Ricky Smith for the past five years.

      2008 $227,288.45
      2009 $216,403.20
      2010 $208,073.29
      2011 $217,387.09
      2012 $221,197.80

      Plus the city pays ad ad agency $21,975.41 on monthly retainer for the Hopkins and Burke account. That’s $500,000 plus a year just your director and outside ad agency. Keep reading and support your Belt.

  14. […] Cleveland is dying. Tell you something you don’t know? OK, I will. Cleveland is on the cusp of popping like Pittsburgh. The good news masquerading as bad, United Airlines pulling the plug on the airport hub: […]

  15. Roldo February 7, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks for a well done piece.

    Just think if the powers that be in Cleveland were successful in the
    1970s when, led by a Squire-Sanders lawyer, they wanted to build a
    jetport in the lake at who knows what cost. They didn’t mention that
    at the time Squire-Sanders was about the only law firm doing bond
    counsel work and would have made out very well.

    Hat off to you Dan.

    • Dan McGraw February 7, 2014 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks Roldo. I’ve admired your work for many, many years, and ability you’ve shown to pull back the curtain on the great and powerful Cleveland wizards (self-proclaimed) and showing us how they are pulling their levers that allow their awe-inspiring flame to shoot out, starting out big but ending in some smelly fumes and ashes and soot (minus lots of money) years later. Glad to do a little on our end to uphold the fine tradition and the work you’ve done and continue to do.

      • 1353taco February 7, 2014 at 8:47 pm

        Congratulations on one of the best pieces in Belt’s very good start. You seem to have won a Roldo without being a Geraldo.

        • Dan McGraw February 7, 2014 at 10:59 pm

          Thanks 1353taco. But Geraldo does have a better mustache than Roldo.

  16. Weekend Reads - Christopher T. Miller February 8, 2014 at 10:28 am

    […] Did Burke Lakefront Airport Miscalculations Add to Hopkins Hub Troubles in Cleveland? – “By Daniel J. McGraw Last month I flew back to Cleveland from Austin, Texas, and landed at Hopkins International Airport at about 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. I usually don’t like to burden…” […]

  17. EJG February 9, 2014 at 3:39 pm


    Great article, and I appreciate you “moving it forward” even though I know you could have gone even deeper and wider with it if given additional time for research and (hopefully) interviews, hopefully that can occur with a future update/article. I agree that a status quo mentality is pervasive in many NEOH politicians and NGO/NFP entities, and those that do valiantly push against that sometimes end up feeling like Sisyphus or Don Quixote rather than Norma Rae or Jefferson Smith. The airport(s) are just the latest victim of that paralysis.

    One piece that cannot be overlooked is the power (economic, philanthropic, and political) of the corporate entities that use the airport, and the secrecy with which they would like to operate. General aviation aircraft can have their flight plans and tail numbers blocked from online flight tracking sites, and costs to operate can be buried within balance sheets or subcontracted out to prevent analysis from shareholders. While there is a convenience and efficiency from having an airport minutes away from downtown businesses (that actually use BKL), this decision by United should force all the stakeholders to have a series of encompassing and transparent discussions regarding the future direction for both airports. I for one would love to see a “Intelligence Squared” type debate(s) held addressing the issue of Burke’s future.

    One comment/criticism, it would have been nice if you would have had embedded hyperlinks to the reports, articles and other sources used in your article.

    Ed George
    Chair, West Park Airport Committee

    • Dan McGraw February 9, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Ed, thanks for the reply. As far as data used, much of it was just basic numbers kept by the FAA and available on their website (go to the ATADS links for airport numbers). We also used some of the master plans done by the city as well, and those are easily available. We didn’t link them in the story because we pulled different numbers from different studies and sometime mashed them together and we felt linking just one wouldn’t give the exact corresponding data for some of the sentences. (I know that sounds weird, but trust me on that). But here are two studies, about ten years old each which sort of summarize a lot of the info on Burke. Remember, however, when reading these studies, that the flight operations (at Burke and Hopkins) numbers have gone down significantly since these studies were done.

      2002 study by partnership of the Cleveland Waterfront Coalition and EcoCity Cleveland.

      2003 study by Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs

      As far as comment by the players in this, we found it quite difficult to get anything of substance from ANYBODY. The city almost always requires all questions be submitted via email, and then a city staff PR person answers in very vague terms with no substance (Q and A discussion is frowned upon). Most on city council would only say it is “not an issue.” Corporate users wouldn’t comment. The urban planning experts were also resigned that Burke will always be there, and repeated the same old arguments that we shot down in the story. So I would encourage you, Ed, and others, to see if a discussion can get going. Because the facts aren’t in dispute: Burke costs the city lots of money to keep open, is on prime lakefront property, is not used very much now, the region has overcapacity of airport infrastructure, and Hopkins needs to be able to cut fees for airlines to lure a new one(s) in to replace United. If there ever was a time for an “Intelligence Squared” debate on the future of Burke now is probably the best time. Thanks again, ED, give my best to the West Park folks, and support your Belt.

    • Gertrude February 8, 2016 at 3:26 pm

      This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for wrngiit!

  18. […] of which makes this piece by Dan McGraw that ran in Belt Magazine on February 4 that much more […]

  19. bupalos February 21, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Excellent Excellent Excellent.

    Burke was always mostly insane and now the excess capacity at Hopkins makes it flat bonkers. You can calculate the direct operational loss (I have to think 2M is VERY conservative just looking at how little that thing is utilized) but good lord, the opportunity cost is simply off the charts. If that property went for 2B, you’re talking maybe 75M a year just at bond interest.

    Whenever numbers are this far off, you have to look at the underlying business and political motivations. My guess is that any time this gets discussed there is some other hot project on the books that would be undermined by all that lakefront property suddenly coming available. So it gets pushed and pushed. 2B dollars doesn’t even blink at issues like a cumbersome FAA or EPA process. 2B dollars eats that ?#!@ for lunch, if someone controls it. I think the solution here is for a referendum simply deeding a quarter of the Burke property to the politicians of Cleveland. Watch how fast that vital aeronautical function is suddenly exposed for the insanity it is.

  20. 24R February 25, 2014 at 11:08 am


    Overall, a good article, but you are a missing a MAJOR point. But some smaller points first.
    You talk about capacity of CGF, BKL, and CLE: “The total number of flights these three airports could handle annually right now would be about 800,000. So the current usage is about one-third of what those three airports could handle.”

    But not all airports are equal. You couldn’t land a 747 at BKL or CGF, but you could at CLE, and you can’t land a 757 at CGF, but you could at BKL. There are many businesses on the East Side, who like to use Cuyahoga County, but when needing a larger aircraft, use (currently) Burke.

    “So the number of annual flights at Burke gets reduced down to 36,000. Easily absorbed at Hopkins or Cuyahoga County or the 14 other airports operating within a one hour radius of Burke.”

    Again, many of the jets (not talking turboprops here) using BKL, cannot use “Cuyahoga County or the 14 other airports operating within a one hour radius of Burke.” They could use CLE, but CAK is too far. The point of flying a corporate jet for business is to save time (and convenience and privacy). There’s no point in flying into CAK then sit in a car for an hour to get to Downtown Cleveland. And regarding Hopkins, there has to be alternative field if CLE cannot accommodate the flight for whatever reason. Remember, the plan—and desire—is to increase commercial flights at Hopkins with new carriers and routes, and not drown in the sorrows of the declining numbers of past years.

    You write, as if, making suggestions for Cleveland: “In 2003, Mayor Richard Daley closed Meigs Field Airport on Lake Michigan in Chicago by just moving in and bulldozing the runways. At first there were threats by the feds…The airport is now being developed as a lakefront park.”

    He didn’t “close” Meigs Field—to use your term. He sabotaged it. He had bulldozers roll onto the field and carve an “X” at each runway end marking it closed. He did this at 2am in the dark of night and in full secrecy. People who had aircraft parked there had to find some way to get their plane out of the airport. You’re not suggesting that the political powers in Cleveland use such brazen tactics to do what they personally want, are you?

    You also write, and which, brings me to the main point you’re missing in your article:

    Regarding Cincinnati Blue Ash: You state, “The 130 acres is now being developed as a public park by the city of Blue Ash, and will have a live performing stage, sled riding during the winter, an indoor recreation facility and trails through a wooded area.”

    How cute.

    If such were to happen to Burke, it would be a true tragedy. Burke—as a reasonably sized airport (not like Medina or Cuyahoga County)—can make a MAJOR economic impact on the city. Its an excellent field located at the heart of the city and the heart of the region. Other cities would kill for such a facility. Airports like Burke BRING jobs and economic activity. The problem is this: the current leaders have not been positioning Burke properly to leverage what this gem could do for the city. Yes, it is being used by one FBO that wants to expand, by the Cleveland Clinic which bases its fleet of jets (not turboprops) there, and other users. But it is far from its full potential. If we were to close BKL as you suggest, we would never be able to build something like that again (except in the lake, and at tremendous cost). $2m a year to offset CLE is nothing. BKL could easily bring in $2m year to balance its own books and not be a cost for Hopkins if it were managed properly and the facility were properly positioned.

    No question that Port Control needs new leadership. If the UA hub closure was bound to happen—and if Ricky Smith and company were competent enough to know this—then there should have been an immediate response plan placed into action upon UA’s announcement. But if they are assembling a ‘team’ now to determine what to do—they have obviously missed the boat and should be sent packing. They are detrimental to the city and the region. They should be going, not Burke. Burke is an incredible asset for the city. It just needs to be leveraged properly and it will bring money and jobs into the city.

  21. Dan McGraw February 25, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Appreciate the comments, 24R. My main purpose of this story is no so much to advocate for a Burke closure, but to advocate for the city to at least lay out the pros and cons of a closure. What would be the positives of changing 450 acres of prime downtown property from an airport that is not used very much these days into a mixed-use public/private development, and what would be the costs. The problem is that the city isn’t even asking those questions or laying our the alternatives. From my conversations with people, I think they don’t want to do such a study because they don’t want to find out what the answers might be. I understand some planes/jets use Burke and can’t use some of the other airports, but we should question whether we keep the airport open for xx number of flights from said planes each year and what are the costs of doing that. And if some could be handled by Hopkins and Cuy. County, then find out how many can and how many cannot.. Proponents of keeping Burke open should be more than happy to find out exactly what the options are because we can get some hard answers instead of speculation. And hey, that Blue Ash rec plan is pretty cute on the former airport property. But from what I saw, it looked to be a functional cute for the entire community..

  22. moresteps April 2, 2014 at 10:55 am

    the article mentions that kansas city closed the richards gebaur memorial airport, and cincinnati closed its blue ash airport.

    to give context, both cities have larger reliever airports closer to their downtown areas that still are in use. neither airport closed was essential to small plane traffic or as a reliever airport to their commercial airport. neither airport closed was the quality or proximity of burke to the central city.

  23. Jdcooper April 7, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Excellent piece ! I’d never heard of Belt Magazine before; I have it bookmarked now.
    It was THAT good.

  24. Eric Deamer August 8, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    I was kindly encouraged by Pete Beatty to leave this 1,800 response piece I wrote to Daniel McGraw’s piece here as a comment. So, if anyone out there is possibly interested in such a thing please see below: \

    About five months ago I was reading an essay on the then recently launched website Belt. The essay by the then recently hired Senior Writer for Belt Daniel J. McGraw was a common type of commentary on the Rust Belt. It picked a once vital institution of a Rust Belt city and just sort of ground you down with depressing statistic after depressing statistic showing that institution’s decline. Those running that particular institution as well as the Rust Belt city’s political leadership are assailed as sclerotic (or possibly even corrupt) in their desire to keep the institution going in something like its current form as opposed to privatizing or simply selling it or even more simply putting the institution out of its misery. The writer never really feels obligated to present an alternative or a solution. It’s enough to show that some major institution is atavistic, mismanaged etc.

    The targets of McGraw’s ire in this piece were twofold: Cleveland’s main airport, Hopkins International, and another smaller airport on the Lake Erie waterfront by downtown Cleveland: Burke Lakefront Airport. Hopkins International, and Greater Cleveland as a whole, had recently suffered the absolute calamity of United Airlines taking hub status away from Hopkins and canceling a large number of flights. For McGraw the denizens of Greater Cleveland hadn’t suffered enough with the huge job loss and other fall out from the loss of the United hub. They also apparently needed a long essay about how “no one should have been shocked” at the hub withdrawal and how Cleveland’s airport situation was even worse than it already seemed.

    In truth there is a need for well-researched “long form” pieces like McGraw’s within the media ecology of Northeast Ohio and of the Rust Belt more generally. With daily newspapers such as most prominently The Cleveland Plain-Dealer routinely firing large numbers of staff and no longer supporting in-depth investigatory journalism, if they ever really did, and with the media establishment of this town generally too in bed with political and business elites to ever do any real adversarial reporting or commentary it’s only startups like Belt or occasionally “alt weekly” The Cleveland Scene that ever produce any content in any way adversarial to entrenched interests.

    The lack of this type of numbers-heavy relentlessly negative piece in local media may partially account for the rapturous response McGraw’s piece got on Belt’s website. Reminiscent of that classic Saturday Night Live short about a hypnotist’s Broadway show, virtually every comment on the website was some variation of “I loved it. It was much better than The Plain Dealer. I’d like to read it again and again.” But if the Rust Belt surely has a need for this type of negative, adversarial and investigative journalism, at the same time we also need to be just as wary and critical of this type of Rust Belt journalism as we are of the institutions and elites it seeks to skewer. Because, as we’re seeing most starkly in Detroit, the decline and upheaval of this era in our region can make it easy pickings for privatizers and profiteers. There seems to be at times a desperate need to sell institutions and assets for whatever we can get simply because many can’t seem to imagine the region rebounding or imagine any number, say of residents or number of plane flights, doing anything but continue to go down.

    The first harbinger of the oligarchs and their privatization schemes coming into your town is of course their errand boys in right wing and “libertarian” think tanks starting to make pronouncements about how sclerotic, inefficient etc. the institutions in your town are, most likely due to “big government,” unions, decent pay and conditions for workers etc. One of the biggest players in the game of promoting corporate, oligarchic power at the expense of government, workers, and the common good is Robert Poole. Poole is the only “expert” source whom McGraw consulted for his article on the decline of Cleveland’s airports and it’s Poole who supplies a great deal of the numbers and statements which McGraw takes as gospel.

    McGraw modestly describes Poole as “director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research organization and think tank.” In strictest terms this is all true, but calling the Reason Foundation simply “a libertarian research organization and think tank” would be a bit like calling Fox News simply “a conservative news channel.” Founded in 1968 by Poole himself among others and funded by Koch and Scaife dollars, the Reason Foundation – which produces Reason magazine as well as Reason TV with Cleveland’s own most famous libertarian zealot Drew Carey – is in fact one of the crown jewels of the right’s enormous idea laundering infotainment complex. Poole is not merely some random wonk but in fact was the president of the Reason Foundation for an astoundingly long term, from 1968 to 2001.

    Robert Poole has been a loyal servant on the Koch brothers’ plantation for a whopping 46 years. There’s no need to guess at what his views might be on privatization. He is literally credited as being the person who came up with the term privatization. His book, Cutting Back City Hall, is said to be the first ever book on privatization and was used as a blueprint by Margaret Thatcher for her brutal war on the English welfare state. Poole and his Reason Foundation have been pushing privatization or at least public private partnerships in all forms of travel, including both surface transit and aviation, for four and a half decades now. It takes very little imagination to realize that some form of privatization scheme is behind any public pronouncements Poole makes about any declining airport. And Poole is the only person McGraw asked to vet projections on numbers of flights at Cleveland Hopkins in future years by the FAA.

    McGraw himself has done his own examination of the FAA estimates over the years and found that the FAA does seem to overestimate the number of flights that will come into the Cleveland area airports routinely. This is a very convincing part of the piece in and of itself but for some reason it’s not enough for McGraw. He feels compelled to reach out to the Kochtopus for a quote from an anti-government zealot, Poole.

    Poole goes beyond merely noting that FAA estimates have been over-estimated in the past to state that the estimates are gotten wrong on purpose for self-interested reasons. “You have to remember that they get bigger budgets and have more people working in that department when they forecast higher traffic,” Poole says.

    “It’s not in the FAA’s best interest to say that some regions of the country might be showing a decline (in aviation use),” And here’s the kicker: “But for Cleveland to use those numbers isn’t very smart, because airports can cost a city a lot of money.”

    Poole is such an old hand at this that by this point subtly inserting libertarian propaganda into anodyne-seeming quotes is second nature. But consider what he’s been able to so economically accomplish with these statements. He’s introduced the idea that a major federal government agency, the FAA, performs no real useful service but exists merely to claim more budget money for itself and get bigger. And, most importantly with the statement about how “airports can cost a city a lot of money” he’s converted Belt readers from thinking of Cleveland Hopkins and Burke as assets to thinking of them as useless burdens. Maybe they should be sold off and privatized!

    Like I said it’s kind of a mystery why McGraw feels compelled to get the quotes from Poole at all. McGraw’s already done his own convincing analysis of the FAA estimates. And he certainly didn’t seem to feel compelled to talk to anyone at non-libertarian think tanks such as Policy Matters Ohio or the many other progressive organizations in Ohio. Nor does there seem to have been any attempt made to contact someone at the FAA itself. None of that is warranted apparently, but what apparently is warranted is reaching out to the right wing’s go to guy on transportation.

    So, faced with this minor act of journalistic malfeasance in McGraw’s article on Burke airport I did what generations of writers and intellectuals have done before: left a snarky, snide comment on the website. I wanted to try to avoid commenting at all but I stupidly started reading the repetitive, sycophantic comments and snapped when I saw one that referred to the article as “unbiased.” This pushed me over the edge for two reasons 1) I don’t think unbiased is something any writer should aspire to being or even possibly can be, and 2)At any rate even if unbiased were something to aspire to it’s clear that someone who seemingly has Koch-funded think tanks on speed dial is not unbiased.

    My juvenile, vituperative comment read in part: I don’t believe in the “unbiased” standard for journalism which Brandon trumpets above, but I hardly see how the author is “unbiased” when he twice credulously quotes at length an “expert” from a self-described “libertarian think tank” the first time to claim that the FAA are all lazy moocher bureaucrats who inflate numbers just to give themselves jobs…I don’t know if Mr. McGraw was brought in expressly to interject right wing libertarian viewpoints into the publication or if he’s just decided to leverage his position in order to do so. Either way, he’s fully within his rights to do so, but don’t call it “unbiased”.

    This was all just too much: too personal, too dramatic, but I don’t regret writing it. Because though McGraw’s piece surely was everything everyone said it is – detailed, informative, well written – it was still not the be all and end all of everything I expect from commentary on this era in the Rust Belt. As can be seen in Detroit there are always those who will use this era of crisis and decline as an excuse to sell everything off, to privatize assets, to seize more and more power for themselves at the expense of once great institutions. And the Robert Pooles of the world are always there to serve their agenda. Nice article Dan, but let’s not let ourselves get rolled by them.

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