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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