Should Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport be Closed? Local Leaders are Starting to Discuss the Possibility

March 23, 2022
Gus Chan / the Plain Dealer
Burke Lakefront Airport encompasses 450 acres of waterfront land in downtown Cleveland, as seen in this photo from the Cleveland National Air Show.
Burke Lakefront Airport encompasses 450 acres of waterfront land in downtown Cleveland, as seen in this photo from the Cleveland National Air Show.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Talks have commenced about the future of Burke Lakefront Airport, including the possibility of closing the city-owned facility that occupies a prime piece of waterfront real estate in downtown Cleveland.

Though the outcome of these discussions is far from certain, city officials for the first time in years appear willing to entertain the possibility that the region no longer needs the small airport, which operates as a reliever facility to much larger Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, about 15 miles away.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the future of Burke is under discussion. During a campaign debate last fall, Mayor Justin Bibb, then a candidate for the city’s top job, said he favored what he called “an honest conversation about the future of Burke.”

His willingness to consider closing Burke comes in sharp contrast to his predecessor, long-time Mayor Frank Jackson, who was opposed to even discussing the possibility.

Although no one involved in the early-stage conversations agreed to speak on the record, any formal consideration of the future of Burke is likely to include officials from City Hall, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority and others.

Sarah Johnson, chief communications officer for Bibb, said the administration was not ready yet to talk about plans for Burke.

The future of Burke isn’t the only airport-related topic that leaders plan to discuss. Potentially even more controversial: The possibility of moving oversight of Hopkins and Burke, both owned by the city, and the county-owned Cuyahoga County Airport in Richmond Heights, to a more regional governance structure. One alternative might include transferring ownership of the airports to the port authority, for example.

The conversation about Burke, however, will come first, said one person involved in the early conversations.

Burke, which sits on 450 acres of lakefront land just east of downtown, is often included in conversations about how to improve access and better develop the waterfront in Cleveland.

Cleveland City Councilman Kerry McCormack, who chairs council’s transportation committee and whose downtown ward includes Burke, is a strong proponent of closing the facility.

“It has always baffled me that we have a massive piece of property on our waterfront that is owned by the citizens of Cleveland that is fenced off by barbed wire and that the people of Cleveland have no access to,” he said Tuesday. “I think it’s morally wrong.”

The facility, which opened in 1947, has seen a steady decrease in use in recent decades.

Traffic volume peaked in 2000, with 100,321 takeoffs and landings, according to Federal Aviation Administration data, falling to 53,987 in 2010 and 49,278 in 2015. In 2021, the airport logged 40,296 takeoffs and landings – about the same number as 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The majority of flights are categorized as general aviation traffic, including business charter flights, medical transport, sports teams, entertainers, flight schools and others.

In recent years, only one commercial operator – Ultimate Air Shuttle – has operated from Burke, flying regularly between Cleveland and Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport.

Ultimate Air, however, shut down in December, citing passenger declines brought on by the pandemic, although officials did not rule out a return to Burke when business travel picks up.

Burke typically operates at a loss, with the deficit picked up by airline fees paid at Cleveland Hopkins. This year, Burke’s deficit is projected to be approximately $640,000, according to airport figures.

Other economic factors that will likely be considered in any conversation about Burke include millions of dollars in FAA grant funding for runway and other improvements that would likely have to be repaid if the airport is closed.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Hopkins continues to plan for a massive $2 billion rebuild of its terminal in the coming years.

Read more: Update on $2 billion plan to rebuild Cleveland Hopkins airport: prep work and funding talks come first

Khalid Bahhur, Cleveland’s commissioner of airports, said Burke’s function is to serve as a reliever airport for Hopkins. “The goal is to take as much general aviation traffic out of the Hopkins mix, to minimize the mix of smaller aircraft and larger aircraft,” he said.

Any discussion of what to do with Burke will have to address where those 40,000 takeoffs and landings should go. “If you bring them here,” he said, referring to Hopkins, “it’s going to cause congestion. It’s going to cause delays.”

He noted that it could take years to close Burke, with numerous government agencies involved, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains containment dikes at the airport filled with dredge material from the nearby Cuyahoga River.

Indeed, it is rare to close an airport.

The last airport in Ohio to close was Cincinnati-Blue Ash Airport, in suburban Cincinnati, shut down by the city of Cincinnati in 2012.

In 2003, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley made international headlines when he ordered the overnight demolition of Meigs Field, a small airport near downtown in Lake Michigan, closed in defiance of FAA rules.

McCormack said any discussion about the future of Burke will take time. “We cannot take a bulldozer to the airport like Mayor Daley did,” he said. “I very much understand that this will take a process. This will not happen next year.”

Bahhur noted that Burke provides economic benefit to the region – with close-to-downtown access for businesses with their own aircraft; through the Cleveland National Air Show, which brings tens of thousands of visitors downtown every Labor Day Weekend; and via the International Women’s Air and Space Museum, located inside the airport terminal.

Over the years, there have been numerous ideas about how to better use the land that the airport sits on. Among the possibilities: a park, residential development, commercial development or some combination of all three.

Bahhur, however, cautioned that land development isn’t always determined by public preference. “Someone is going to have to buy it,” he said. “Someone is going to have to develop it.”

Still, he said, he supports an open, honest conversation about the airport and its possible alternative uses. “I think it’s good to have community engagement about the airport,” he said. “It’s long overdue.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.