Could Cleveland Suffer in a Continental-United Merger?

Any merger scenario involving Continental would create anxiety in Cleveland, where the airline's hub at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport employs more than 3,000 people.

In a Continental-United scenario, "Cleveland might well be a loser in the transition," Roach said, because United's Chicago hub and Continental's Newark, N.J., hub would certainly survive. But whatever scaling back that occurs in Cleveland would undoubtedly prompt others such as Southwest Airlines to fill the void.

Continental has it good in Cleveland

When United greatly reduced its extensive operations in Cleveland in the mid-1980s, service suffered for a while, said Dennis Eckart, former U.S. representative and former head of the old Greater Cleveland Growth Association. But Continental eventually filled the void and has a greater presence at Hopkins than United ever did.

But Mann is not so sure Hopkins would lose its hub because United has no room to grow in Chicago and Continental has a good situation in Cleveland. The loser could be United's hub in Denver, where competitive pressure is being applied by Southwest and Frontier Airlines.

Meanwhile, a Continental merger with Delta would leave two hubs in Ohio, one each in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Roach isn't sure which would survive. But if Continental were to merge with Northwest, Northwest's Detroit hub would likely drive Cleveland out of the hub business.

Tom Waltermire, chief executive of Team NEO, a regional economic development organization, said he has not heard any speculation about Continental and United, but that keeping the Continental hub at Hopkins remains a goal.

"All these guys are trying to get their costs down," he said. But, "consolidation that adds more complexity is not necessarily a virtue."

The more successful airlines seem to be those with the simpler business models, he said, such as Southwest, which flies Boeing 737s only.

Ricky Smith, director of the Cleveland Airport System, also said he has not heard any rumors related to a Continental merger and that such talk is not unusual among the airlines.

He declined to speculate on how Hopkins could be affected by such a scenario, although he added that Cleveland is a large market that relies more heavily on flights that begin and end here, as opposed to flights where passengers simply land in Cleveland to make a connection. That means if Continental's hub went away, other airlines would step in to provide service.

In the end, it might not be synergies or geography or anything operational that determines which hub stays and which hub goes. The fallout could simply depend on who is doing the acquiring.

"That as much as anything else dictates what lives and what dies," Mann said.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: , 216-999-4834

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