Newark hub in running for Continental expansion

June 4, 2007
Cleveland also eyes more business

Continental Airlines might expand one of its three U.S. hubs, which could mean additional flights and new jobs in Cleveland, Houston or Newark.

The state of Ohio awarded a grant last week to the airline for a proposed $45 million expansion project at Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport, which Continental said would add an unspecified number of flights and 711 new jobs.

Cleveland Hopkins, Continental's Midwest hub, is competing with the airline's other hubs in Houston and Newark for the expansion.

A spokeswoman for Continental said the airline has made no decisions, and the financial incentives it receives will help determine where it expands its business.

Earlier this month, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a budget that included $1.5 million earmarked for Continental's expansion at Hopkins. Finance committee Chairman Matthew Dolan said Continental's growth is critical to Northeast Ohio. The Ohio state Senate must still approve the budget.

In Continental's grant request to the state, the airline said an expansion would increase the number of flights and destinations, and allow more passengers to make connecting flights through Cleveland.

Continental said the Hopkins project would include construction of new ticketing and passenger reception areas at a cost of about $35 million. An additional $10 million would go toward renovations, infrastructure and design costs.

The state's $900,000 grant to Continental would help pay for new equipment and machinery.

Continental said it would cover the bulk of the remaining $45 million project.

The full-time jobs created would pay an average of $24.76 an hour, according to Continental's grant request.

Airport director Ricky Smith said Continental's proposal is good news, but he has no commitment from the airline to move forward.

But Hopkins and Continental have made several moves in the past year to position the airline for growth.

Last year, the airline announced it would add nonstop flights to Paris beginning in the summer 2008.

That would be only the second nonstop flights to Europe from Cleveland. Continental offers seasonal flights to London's Gatwick Airport.

Earlier this year, the airport opened a new $7.5 million automated baggage screening system exclusively for Continental's use.

The high-tech system, paid for by the federal government, allows Continental to handle twice as many bags as the manual system it replaced. The new system is critical for adding more flights, airport officials have said. And on Thursday, Continental Chief Executive Larry Kellner and President Jeff Smisek visited Cleveland to meet with employees and host a luncheon for local business customers.

The events were closed to the media.

Their visit was routine, an airline spokesman said, and they made no announcements about an expansion in Cleveland.

Susan Vinella is a stafff writer for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

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