Akron-Canton Airport Really Taking Off

When the first Frontier Airlines flight from Akron-Canton Airport takes off this afternoon for Denver, it will mark another leap for an airport whose recent growth seems to know few bounds.

Airport officials have been meeting with architects in recent days to discuss a new expansion project that would add even more room to the airport, which is still undergoing a $100 million expansion launched in 2001.

This latest plan calls for adding three gates on the south end of the main concourse after the current project is finished in about a year. The airport has eight gates already, and at the end of the current project, that number could grow to 11. Construction is expected to begin no earlier than mid-2007.

''We'd like to go a year without any construction and let everyone settle in a bit,'' said Rick McQueen, assistant director of the airport.

During that year, airport officials will finish the new project's design, arrange for the money and seek necessary government approvals, he said. The cost has not yet been determined, he said.

The burgeoning airport needs the room, McQueen said. Akron-Canton is among the fastest growing airportsin the nation, according to industry research.

The three gates will allow the airport to add more flights to the itineraries of current carriers and attract additional carriers that want into the Northeast Ohio market. The new gates would allow Akron-Canton to add service to such vacation destinations as Cancun and Toronto, officials said.

With the addition of Frontier today, Akron-Canton has six airlines and more than 80 flights a day. The passenger count more than tripled from 403,694 in 1995 to a record of more than 1.35 million last year. It is on track to surpass 1.5 million this year.

The Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Denver, expects Akron-Canton to increase passenger volume 55 percent by 2008.

The airport draws passengers from as far away as Pittsburgh, Columbus and Toledo, but the primary target customer lives between Cleveland and Canton.

Airport officials are working particularly hard to lure those passengers whose first thought might be to fly out of the much larger Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

The airport's recent marketing campaign has been built on its reputation as a small, no-hassle and easy-to-navigate facility. The comparison to Hopkins, which has about 11 million passengers to Akron's 1.35 million annually, is intimated but unspoken in the ads.

But could the airport's drive to build business destroy its selling point of manageability?

That's unlikely, said Kristie Van Auken, marketing director of the airport.

''Even if we were to double the number of passengers to 3 million a year, we'd still be less than a third of what Hopkins is,'' Van Auken said. ''We're never going to be another Cleveland. We will always maintain that smaller role.''

On the other hand, no one is planning to limit the airport's growth.

''We will grow every year as long as we can, and hopefully that will be infinite,'' she said.

Their success will depend on whether officials take a strictly business-minded approach, said Gus Ubaldi, president of Whitworth-Borta, an aviation consulting firm in Rocky River. Too often, airport directors think about looking good to the community and not whether their market can support an expansion.

''It's just like you're selling widgets. You decide how best to sell more widgets and to whom should you sell,'' Ubaldi said. ''You find your niche and you grow.''

Akron-Canton markets effectively to the hassled traveler tired of big airports, Ubaldi said. It also offers airlines a foothold into the lucrative Northeast Ohio market. Continental Airlines dominates Hopkins' gates, and there is little room for new players, he said.

''That's when they say 'Let's look at Akron-Canton.' It offers them a way in,'' Ubaldi said.

Akron-Canton is the first Ohio destination for Frontier.

''If Frontier didn't think it would make money at Akron- Canton, it wouldn't have happened,''Ubaldi said. ''You can be sure they did their research.''

Frontier, a low-fare carrier, is an important factor in Akron- Canton's growth because it is the first to offer nonstop service to Denver, linking area travelers to 17 destinations in the West and five in Mexico.

Frontier's flights will compete with nonstop flights from Cleveland to Denver on United and Continental, as well as with a host of other airlines that connect through other cities for westbound travelers.