Rivalry is taking off with region's airports

Green - Cleveland Hopkins International Airport must be feeling the heat.

It negotiated an agreement with Clear Channel Outdoor to outlaw Akron-Canton Airport billboards within a mile of Hopkins airport.

It launched a new logo and ad campaign about a year after Akron's catchy punching-bag clown commercials took off.

And in September, Continental Airlines President Jeff Smisek - in a serious threat passed off as a funny comment - told business leaders to fly from the airline's Hopkins hub, warning, "Don't drive to Akron-Canton!" Why?

Hopkins officials won't talk about it, but the little airport is making big inroads.

Akron-Canton Airport has celebrated five record-breaking years of growth since 2001, with passenger traffic increasing from 789,607 in 2000 to 1.4 million in 2006, an 82 percent increase. That made it the second-fastest-growing airport in the country for that period, behind Long Beach, Calif.

In that same six years, passenger traffic at the bigger Hopkins decreased 15 percent, from 13.2 million to 11.3 million.

A decade ago, Hopkins had the jet travel market all to itself.

Then, the Akron terminal was a dated shell - a spot where you would walk out on the tarmac and catch a turboprop to Pittsburgh or Detroit.

Now the terminal is bright and shiny, with 12 gates, massage chairs and a sports bar featuring post cards of Cleveland, Akron and Canton in glass-top tables. Destinations like Denver, Las Vegas and New York flash on flat departure screens.

This winter, Akron will roll out its five-year plan, which includes adding 800 feet to its longest runway, giving it as much runway space as New York's LaGuardia Airport, plus the ability to fly direct to Los Angeles.

"I'm incredibly impressed," said Rick Batyko, vice president for regional marketing for the Greater Cleveland Partnership. "We should be proud of Akron-Canton for everything they've done, to be as competitive as they are for a midsized airport."

Not that Cleveland is worried. No, not at all.

"Cleveland Hopkins offers so many more destinations, so many more flights, so many more airlines and so much more convenience that I don't believe it's a threat," said Cleveland Councilman Kevin Kelley, who heads council's Aviation and Transportation Committee. "There is no Akron-to-Paris flight coming."

And it's true, travelers out of Akron's airport don't have the same array of choices - fewer carriers, fewer flights and no direct international flights - as do those departing from Hopkins.

But with a makeover and some serious marketing, the Akron airport has repositioned itself from local outpost to "another portal to Northern Ohio," said Michael Boyd, a Colorado aviation consultant who has worked with the airport.

The airport spends a hefty fifth of its operating budget marketing that message.

It's plastered on billboards, on Travelocity banner ads and in sly TV commercials, in which a smiling Punch Dummy is stranded in a dark parking lot and knocked over on a hectic concourse.

"We've been branding and awareness-building for a decade," spokeswoman Kristie Van Auken said. "You can't just pop in and out of a market."

The Akron airport has even played host to a concert with the Web site CoolCleveland.com.

At a Pack Your Bags party in September, the plan was for Cleveland's young, hip partygoers to see the easy-access airport - and to eventually book a flight.

Van Auken and CoolCleveland creator Thomas Mulready dreamed up the event in part because the Web site's core subscribers are frequent fliers, Van Auken said. The party provided a bus from the Warehouse District for people who didn't want to drive and awarded round-trip flights to two lucky winners.

"It's to get people to kind of cross that I-480 barrier and to come down and try it out in a real nonthreatening way," Van Auken said.

Hopkins airport officials didn't return phone calls to talk about the little airport to the south.

Fred Krum, Akron-Canton Airport's director, brushes aside talk of heated competition.

"That's like the Akron Aeros taking over the Cleveland Indians," Krum said. "We've been hitting home runs. We see base hits in the future."

Sure.

That's why Akron-Canton Airport calls itself "the preferred alternative to Cleveland Hopkins."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: ljohnsto@plaind.com, 216-999-4115


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