Ohio Airport Hopes Makeover Boosts Passenger Traffic

Feb. 21, 2006
Behind the flakeboard walls and the temporary service counters, construction workers are replacing counters and offices with smaller quarters to accommodate airlines' desires to cut overhead costs.

Feb. 20--Barbara Hughes can see the temporary walls in the passenger terminal at Toledo Express Airport, but so far what happens beyond them doesn't affect her biweekly trips from Chicago to tend to a local business office.

"I know there's construction, but I don't know what it is," Ms. Hughes said Friday on her way to the gate for a flight home. "Are they adding more airlines?"

Not quite, though Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority officials hope the improvements will help make Toledo Express more attractive to carriers and reverse a sharp decline in passenger traffic.

Behind the flakeboard walls and the temporary service counters, construction workers are replacing counters and offices with smaller quarters to accommodate airlines' desires to cut overhead costs.

Also in the works is an expanded area for handling outbound baggage, new central heating and air-conditioning and an expansion of the passenger waiting room on the second floor.

The temporary wall upstairs is much more obvious to travelers than is the ground-floor work area, the entry for which is well-separated from the airline counters and other high-traffic areas.

The construction also is obvious from the tarmac.

But except for a few "Pardon Our Dust" signs, the construction is easily overlooked from the main concourse.

Future phases of a modernization campaign for the terminal could be put on hold depending on how well Toledo Express recovers from its slump, airport director Paul Toth said.

But he said the project, which is costing $5.69 million, is vital to making airlines' local operations more efficient.

Passenger traffic at Toledo Express declined by 23.6 percent during 2005, a year in which TransMeridian Airlines shut down and other carriers cut service to offset skyrocketing fuel prices and stiff fare competition.

The trend continued in January, with passenger traffic off by 12 percent, compared to the same month in 2005.

Most worrisome was the decline in traffic on Continental Connection, Northwest Airlink, and Delta Connection flights, which were each down by 25 percent or more, even though Continental and Northwest had more seats available than they had the year before.

If there is a silver lining to lower passenger volume, it's the ability to work on the terminal without disrupting business, Mr. Toth said.

"It's definitely the time to do it," Mr. Toth said.

"You certainly don't want to be reconstructing your terminal when you're bursting at the seams," he said.

Only during the early-morning peak, when simultaneous departures create congestion around the ticket counters, does the space feel cramped, he said.

That should end in May, when new airline counters will be ready for use.

Upstairs, the airport director said, the most immediate benefit to passengers will be larger rest rooms configured to eliminate the need for the main doors, which are impediments for people carrying bags.

Of the project's cost, $4.6 million is coming from two years' worth of Federal Aviation Administration grants that are given to airports annually based on their traffic levels and funded by aviation taxes. An additional $800,000 was available from FAA discretionary funds secured by U.S. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and Paul Gillmor (R., Old Fort), while the $285,000 local match resulted from a ticket tax called the passenger-facility charge.

Reduced passenger volume is not hurting ticket-tax collection enough to make a difference.

"It just takes you a little longer to collect the project amounts," Mr. Toth said.

The project's goals, furthermore, include setting up "common-use" facilities that will reduce overhead costs for airlines that want to establish new stations in Toledo.

Traditionally, airlines controlled everything about their operations by leasing counter space and gates and providing their own counter staff, their own computers, and their own baggage tugs, carts, and handlers.

But when Allegiant Air arrived at Toledo Express in December to introduce Las Vegas and Sanford, Fla., routes, the airline only sent along two company computers, Mr. Toth said.

The rest of Allegiant's ground operations are managed by a contractor. The only airline employees who go to Toledo Express are its flight crews.

Mr. Toth sees that as the wave of the future, and said the passenger terminal will have features to accommodate the lean operations, including self-service electronic check-in kiosks in which travelers first select their airline and then follow that airline's check-in procedure to obtain boarding passes. Counter space will be designed to accommodate common-use computers, so airlines don't have to provide their own, and the baggage area will be set up to support common use.

Airlines would have to pay for using airport-owned equipment, the airport director said, "but they wouldn't have the up-front capital cost."

The counters and airline operations offices themselves are being configured into much smaller units, because travelers increasingly check in electronically.

When it was Toledo's dominant airline, US Airways used 2,650 square feet of office space and a long counter with multiple agent positions. The largest airline space in the new layout will be just 780 square feet, Mr. Toth said.

Features proposed for later phases include relocating the passenger security checkpoint, building a glass-enclosed stairway structure to the upstairs waiting room, renovating the terminal's facade, and adding skylights over the main concourse. But that work probably will wait until the airlines' financial picture stabilizes, Mr. Toth said.

"We've really got to get a better handle on where the airline industry is headed before we spend $17 million more on modernizing this terminal," he said. "But phase I allows us to retain airlines and try to attract new ones."

Contact David Patch at: [email protected] or 419-724-6094.