CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland airport officials plan to make a major push this year to land nonstop service to Europe.
The region, they say, has more than enough travelers to support a new trans-Atlantic flight.
What it doesn’t have – at least not yet – is enough financial support from the community, including businesses and other groups.
Other than short-lived service to Iceland in 2018, Clevelanders could last fly nonstop from Hopkins to Europe in 2009, when service to London ended, a victim of the Great Recession.
Any new service between Cleveland and Europe will likely take economic incentives to entice an airline to try an unproven route, according to John Hogan, deputy chief of marketing and air service development at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
St. Louis, for example, recently put together a $5 million incentive package to convince Lufthansa Airlines to start new service between St. Louis Lambert International Airport and Frankfurt, Germany. The three-times per week service launches in June.
About half of the money is coming from the business community and about half from the St. Louis County Port Authority, an arm of county government.
With a similar incentive package, Hogan believes Cleveland could easily land nonstop service to Europe.
“As I like to say, it takes a village,” said Hogan. “It will take the community to really jump in there.”
The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits airports from making direct payments to airlines in exchange for service. Instead, airports can waive certain fees and help carriers with marketing the new flights.
States, local governments and businesses, however, are able to offer financial assistance to carriers in exchange for new routes. And it’s become an increasingly popular way for communities, particularly midsized cities, to land new carriers and new flights to important destinations, including international routes.
Last year, Cleveland Hopkins announced new nonstop service to Seattle on Alaska Airlines, a new carrier that was drawn to Cleveland in part because of a financial package put together by JobsOhio, the economic development arm of state government, and the local business community.
Baiju Shah, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, said the business community understands the importance of robust air service. But, he added, business travel patterns have changed, and are likely to change more, due to the pandemic.
“The business community is still evaluating their own travel needs going forward,” he said. “I don’t have a strong perspective on how important a trans-Atlantic flight would be to the business community.”
Shah said he would want to see an economic impact analysis of any possible route before committing financial support to it. “It’s hard for us to go to the business community without an economic case,” he said. “There’s got to be a broader regional benefit and we have to understand what that means. It has to be tangible. And with that information, we can make a decision on whether it’s a good choice for our local resources.”
Pennsylvania subsidized Pittsburgh to Europe flights
In 2018, when British Airways announced it would start flying to London from Pittsburgh International Airport, local officials estimated the flight would generate $57 million annually in economic impact.
The state of Pennsylvania helped entice the carrier to Pittsburgh by offering a $3 million subsidy over two years. The flight, suspended during the pandemic, is expected to restart in June.
Airport officials in Ohio believe they have been at a competitive disadvantage for years when it comes to attracting new air service. Airports in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, for example, have had international service for years, subsidized – at least initially – by state funds.
That changed in 2020, when JobsOhio, the economic development arm of the state, developed a program to help Ohio airports attract new service.
So far, that new program has been used three times – to help persuade Alaska Airlines to come to Cleveland, and to entice new carrier Breeze Airways to the Akron-Canton and Columbus airports.
Cleveland officials hope the next time will be used to attract service to Europe.
“Our target is to have trans-Atlantic service in the summer of 2023,” said Airport Director Robert Kennedy. “Those decisions will be made this year.”
Cleveland hasn’t had nonstop service to Europe since 2018, when two carriers based in Iceland went head to head at Hopkins with flights to Reykjavik. Neither lasted a year – Wow Air went bankrupt in 2019 and Icelandair’s service was disrupted by the grounding of its Boeing 737 Max jets due to safety concerns.
Before 2018, the last time a carrier flew nonstop to Europe from Cleveland was 2009, when Continental Airlines offered service to London.
In the years since Continental and United merged in 2010, and United closed its Hopkins hub in 2014, Cleveland has lost numerous nonstop destinations.
Bill Koehler, CEO of Team NEO, a regional economic development organization, said the community needs to decide what markets are a top priority, both domestic and international.
“We have to build a strategy around what the priority markets ought to be,” he said. “We’re going to have to decide how to prioritize the markets we choose to go after and how much money, as a community, we want to set aside for something like that.”
In previous years, Shah said, the business community has had a hard time agreeing on which European destinations were the most important. “There wasn’t enough of a concentration around a single city to make it obvious,” he said.
Logical choice: London
London would be the logical first choice for a flight, according to Hogan. In 2019, before the pandemic, Cleveland Hopkins saw 51 passengers per day on average headed to London – more than Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, which have all had nonstop flights to Europe for years.
Any one of several European destinations or carriers could be successful, however, according to Hogan. The success of any flight to Europe from a midsized American city relies on passengers transferring to a second, final destination. An airline that offers lots of connections is crucial, said Hogan.
Back in 2019, Cleveland Hopkins was under serious consideration for a new route to Dublin from Irish carrier Aer Lingus. The airline is owned by International Airlines Group, which also owns British Airways, and serves dozens of destinations in Europe, the Middle East and North America.
The business community, however, was not completely sold on the service. And Aer Lingus eventually looked elsewhere.
Airport officials don’t want that to happen again.
“We need our community to do more,” said Kennedy, who asked that businesses or community members reach out to him if they want to help in the effort (he provided his phone number, 216-265-6022, and email address, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Any incentive package would likely not be an outright subsidy, but would be similar to what was put together for Alaska Airlines — a minimum revenue guarantee for the first couple years to help a route get established.
“You’re sharing the risk,” said Kennedy.
A new flight to Europe is just one of numerous destinations being pursued by officials at Cleveland Hopkins.
Hogan provided this list of priority destinations, currently without nonstop service from Cleveland: San Diego, Austin, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon.