Toledo's New Airport Director Sees Cloudy Skies Turning Blue

Jan. 29 -- If Eric Frankl is trying to make a name for himself as an airport director, he couldn't have picked a more opportune time to take the reins at Toledo Express.

Mr. Frankl, who succeeded Paul Toth as director of airports for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority earlier this month, takes over management of a facility where passenger business last year was the lowest in 39 years, thanks largely to service cuts by struggling airlines.

Just 377,046 passengers got on or off planes at the local commercial airport during 2006, down 17.9 percent from 2005, and 37.2 percent lower than the 600,439 travelers who used Express during 2004.

The last time the airport's passenger traffic was below 400,000 was 1967, when the count of 348,895 was part of a steady growth trend after Express's 1955 opening. Local air passenger volume had not dropped below 450,000 since 1982, during a service ebb that followed the federal government's 1978 deregulation of the airline industry.

Mr. Frankl, who for 4 1/2 years had been executive director of Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill., before coming to Toledo as assistant airport director in October, said Friday there is no quick fix for what ails Toledo Express.

"This is a really tough time," he said. "The carriers are reducing their small aircraft fleets, and in most cases those are the aircraft that are going to serve a market like Toledo. Nobody's building turbo-props anymore, and nobody's building regional jets with fewer than about 70 seats."

It's telling that the port authority secured a $400,000 air-service development grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in August to help subsidize the startup of a Toledo-New York City route, but has yet to sign an airline to fly it, Mr. Frankl said.

"To find that right partner, with the right aircraft, and the right time to do it, that's the challenge," he said.

There are "striking" similarities, Mr. Frankl said, between Toledo Express and the Springfield airport, both of which face tough competition from other nearby airports.

While airline consolidation has reduced the status of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis from hub to focus city, it still attracts 73 percent of Springfield's air-travel market, he said. Regional airports in Peoria, Champaign, and Bloomington, Ill., nip at Abraham Lincoln's market area, too, with Bloomington holding an ace in the form of discount carrier AirTran Airways.

And like Toledo, Springfield recently secured a $390,000 federal air-service development grant. The only difference, Mr. Frankl said, is that it did so with United Airlines signed as the carrier for an experimental route to Washington-Dulles International Airport, for which flights are slated to begin in March.

Toledo officials chose New York as a service-development target because a 2004 study showed Toledoans make about 94,000 air trips per year to Gotham, but only about 10 percent do so from Express. The federal grant is to be matched by $200,000 in local funds, creating a $600,000 revenue guarantee for the first year of service.

Beyond continuing the effort that Mr. Toth, his predecessor, began to find a carrier for the New York route, Mr. Frankl said he will focus on retaining the 19 departures Toledo Express now has on an average day and use that as a foundation for building service as airlines become capable of growing again.

"I really do believe we have seen the worst here," he said. "Clearly we have a market that the airlines used to take advantage of. We are going to try to reinforce our existing carriers and build upon them."

His promotion to airport director includes a pay raise from $90,000 to $105,000, and occurred when Mr. Toth was promoted to be port authority's vice president of technical and financing services.

Mr. Frankl said he was aware when he was hired as assistant airport director that Mr. Toth might be promoted, but he was not promised the higher job.

A Shelby, Ohio, native and 1986 graduate of Bowling Green State University, Mr. Frankl said he accepted what he considered a lateral move from Springfield to Toledo in part because it brought him closer to his hometown and because Toledo Express' operations are more diverse. Along with its passenger business, Toledo Express also has a major air cargo operation -- the BAX Global hub -- and Mr. Frankl's job also includes oversight of Metcalf Field, a general aviation airport in Lake Township.

Both Toledo Express and Metcalf are owned by the city of Toledo and leased to the port authority, and the Finkbeiner administration recently broached the idea of trying to sell Metcalf as a money-raising tactic. Mr. Frankl said he doubts that idea would work, but that he "wouldn't be offended" if, as a result of Metcalf being sold, port authority officials "wanted to reconsider my compensation."

Mr. Frankl, 42, and married with two stepsons, said he couldn't rule out moving on if the right offer came from another airport, but he considers Toledo to be a good fit for him.

"I like it here. It's my home state, and my family's close," he said. "It makes a lot of sense for me."

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