The Cleveland Revival: How Low Cost Carriers Help Rebuild a Once Great Hub

By Jldohm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Just over one year ago, United Airlines’ CEO Jeff Smisek had announced that Cleveland Hopkins International Airport would be losing its hub status.

“Our hub in Cleveland hasn’t been profitable for over a decade, and has generated tens of millions of dollars of annual losses in recent years,” Smisek stated. “We simply cannot continue to bear these losses.”

Suddenly everything changed. Cleveland saw United remove 60% of its daily departures from the airport, and the recent concourse addition built for United became vacant. At one time this airport carried over 13 million passengers, but now serves a mere fraction of this. However, the recent addition of Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines and JetBlue have given the city hope that even without a major domestic carrier, the city can still achieve the passenger numbers it once met.

During its glory years, Cleveland was the midwest hub for Continental Airlines after United Airlines began its move to Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. At one point Continental occupied over 60% of daily flights from the airport, and continued to see large passenger growth until its merger with United Airlines in 2010. The merger left the new United with too many hubs nearby, particularly Chicago and Washington, and resulted in the eventual dehubbing of Cleveland.

Similar to other airports that have faced sudden drops in passenger service, such as Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, Cleveland decided it needed to act fast. It began soliciting low cost carriers, and found success beginning with Frontier Airlines starting new service to Trenton, NJ in February of 2014. This was quickly followed by new service offered from Cleveland to Atlanta, Fort Myers, Phoenix, Tampa and more. In the same way that Frontier filled a void, Spirit Airlines was quick to offer service to eight new destinations in early 2015. Now most recently, JetBlue has begun to find success in Cleveland with a new route to Boston, even though they are not an ultra low cost carrier like Spirit and Frontier are.

“It’s not as if we haven’t been looking at Cleveland for years,” said Dave Clark, JetBlue’s Vice President of Network Planning. “Cleveland has been on our radar for a long time. This was the year we were finally ready to take the step.”

While the airport has not yet been able to fill the entire void left by United, new proposals are currently underway to mimic the success of other airports that have felt similar pains to that of Cleveland. Following St. Louis’ move, some have suggested turning the now vacant United concourse into a room that can be rented out for parties and conferences.

In the words of Ricky Smith, Director of Cleveland Hopkins, “I think Cleveland deserves that kind of service again.”

Joe Pesek

Joe Pesek

Joe is a recent graduate of Miami University (OH), and has been following the aviation world ever since his first business class flight to Asia in 2013. While he has joined the real working world since graduating, he continues to follow his passion of airlines and aviation through earning miles and redeeming them for trips around the world. His dream is to one day be involved in managing or consulting for a global airline.
Joe Pesek