By Jack Harty / Published June 4, 2014
Nine miles southwest of the central business district of Cleveland lies an airport that has helped pioneer aviation. It has a rich history, and now, it’s in the news as United plans to de-hub it, again. Welcome to Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport.
The Early Years
Air Mail To President Hoover, 1929: An Air Mail pilot poses in front of his plane with an oversized letter addressed to President Herbert Hoover.
Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
The first flights started landing in Cleveland from Detroit as part of Henry Ford’s commercial air mail service in 1919. The flights landed at a small airfield near East 93rd Street at Kinsman Road, but as time passed, the space quickly became inadequate.
In 1925, then City Manager William R. Hopkins was able to convince Cleveland’s City Council to approve a $1.25 million bond to purchase 1,040 acres to construct an airport near the intersection of Brookpark and Riverside roads. Although many were not happy that the airport was approximately eleven miles away from downtown Cleveland, the city helped put a streetcar system and other transportation systems in place. On July 1, 1925, the airport officially opened, making it the first municipally owned airport in the United States.
Air Traffic Control Tower Plans: This drawing shows the plans for the Cleveland Airport’s air traffic control tower.
Image courtesy of The Library of Congress
When the airport first opened, only a few thousand airplanes were using the airport annually, but in 1929, traffic jumped up to nearly 20,000 aircraft. In order to support the traffic, the world’s first air traffic control tower was constructed, which provided a 360-degree view of the airfield. A two-way radio was installed in the tower to allow communication with aircraft, the first time it had been used in the aviation field. Now, planes could land simultaneously on different parts of the air field.
Cleveland was part of the United States’ war effort in World War II. The National Advisor Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had a laboratory on the western end of the airport, where research on airplane engines was conducted. Additionally, the Cleveland Bomber Plant built Boeing B-29 bombers, and flight testing was conducted at the airport.
Air Transportation Takes Off
Passenger Waiting Room, 1937: Passengers wait for their flights at Cleveland Airport in 1937
Image courtesy of The Library of Congress
Starting in the mid-1950s, the city expanded and modernized the airport. The airport took its current name, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, in 1951. In 1956, the main terminal was built and, over the years, the airport has added more concourses and gates. Plus, the airport expanded the baggage handling and parking facilities.
On November 15, 1968, a direct rapid transit began connecting Cleveland Hopkins with the city and surrounding areas.
As the airport continued to expand, many conflicts with the local neighborhoods arose due to jet noise and the need for longer runways.
United’s Cleveland Operations in 1960s and 1970s
Rear of Admin. Building, 1952: Passengers wait behind Cleveland Municipal Airport’s main terminal and administration building in 1952.
Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections
United began to build up a large presence at the airport during the late 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. In order to cope with the growth, concourse C was built exclusively for United in the 1960s. The rotunda (also known was the ‘banjo’) in concourse C was built in the early 1970s to accommodate United’s Boeing 747 and DC-10, which were flown to Chicago and New York JFK.
In early 1979, United was flying 90-120 daily departures from the airport, serving more than thirty destinations from the airport. However, things began to change post-deregulation.
With deregulation the new law of the land, airlines began to focus on establishing certain hubs to conduct most of their business. During the early 1980s, United started reducing its daily departures from 120 to 50 as it shifted its focus to its Chicago O’Hare, Denver, and Washington Dulles. Meanwhile, Pan American started flights to London Gatwick via Detroit.
The carrier made more cuts to its Cleveland operations as it continued to grow in Denver and Washington DC: By the beginning of 1988, the airline flew a meager thirteen daily departures from Cleveland.
Despite the major operation cuts, United refused to give up its gates which kept other airlines out for several years. Never fear. A new carrier had its eye on Cleveland
Continental Airlines Builds Cleveland Presence
In June of 1987, Continental Airlines announced its intention of building a large Cleveland operation at the cost of its Denver hub.
Initially it was only operating sixteen daily flights, but it did not take long for it to take off. Two months later, the carrier added six new flights, and by the end of 1987, Continental was the number two carrier in Cleveland, behind US Air.
Luckily, the carrier and the city were able to take the C Concourse away from United. Thanks to an improved local economy as well as the airport’s ability to meet carrier’s needs, such as Continental, passenger traffic was growing.
Continental continued to grow its operations into the 1990s, and in 1999 Continental launched flights from Hopkins to London Gatwick with a Boeing 757-200. But during the late 1990s, Continental’s relationship with the Cleveland community started becoming a bit uneasy.
Changes to Continental’s Cleveland Operation
Hopkins Aerial, Ca. 2005: This aerial image taken by a NASA satellite shows Cleveland Hopkins Airport around 2005. The cluster of buildings at the top left is the NASA Glenn Research Center.
In 2003, Continental’s CEO, Gordon Bethune, publicly scolded the Cleveland business community and encouraged business flyers to support Continental at Hopkins as neighboring Akron-Canton Regional Airport grew in popularity with cheap flights.
Unfortunately it appears folks didn’t listen. Hopkins started seeing boardings decline at the expense of Akron, which grew quickly. Shortly after, Continental reduced the number of people on its board of directors by halving the number of representatives from the Cleveland area. The airline also closed its four off-airport Cleveland ticket offices, and it began to scrutinize local passenger traffic volume more. But, this was short lived.
A Big Expansion Announced
On September 14, 2007, Continental announced that it would substantially expand its Cleveland operations. It would grow its presence by more than 40%, create 700 new jobs, add 50 new flights initially, add twenty more new flights in mid-2008, and add more than a dozen “global” flights by early 2009.
The airline would start new non-stop destinations from Cleveland to Oklahoma City and Ottawa (in late September 2007); and Greensboro, Omaha, Savannah, Birmingham, Charleston, Green Bay, Tulsa, Little Rock, Memphis, Lansing, Des Moines, and Kalamazoo (all by early 2008). On the global scale, the carrier would began seasonal service to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport on May 22, 2008.
The airport was also going to make improvements to cope with the new planned traffic. The plan was to expand its security checkpoint area, build a new meet-and-greet area, add more ticket counters, and add more concessions.
The state of Ohio offered a $16 million incentive package to help bring the service increase to fruition.
Unfortunately it would not come to pass. Thanks to record-high fuel prices, Continental had to cut capacity in the summer of 2008 and reduce its workforce. The airline also eliminated service between Cleveland and 24 cities, including the service between Cleveland and Paris and London Heathrow, and it also reduced the frequency of its flights to a number of others.
The airline dropped flights between Cleveland and Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Charleston, S.C.; Charleston, W. Va.; Cincinnati; Des Moines, Iowa: Detroit; Green Bay, Wis.; Greensboro, N.C.; Lexington, Ky.; Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn., Nashville, Tenn.; Norfolk, Va.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Omaha, Neb.; Ottawa, Canada; San Antonio, Texas; San Diego; Sarasota, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; Toledo; Tulsa, Okla.; and Washington-Dulles.
Ironically, the carrier had only just begun serving many of those cities only a few weeks before.
Continental’s cuts were much deeper as a percentage than overall flight volume at its other hubs in Houston and Newark. However, many were not concerned as they expected flights to resume when the economy got better.
United and Continental Merge
For several years, many questioned if/when United and Continental merged. In 2009, Continental moved to the Star Alliance to be closer to United and the other Star Alliance partners.
In late April of 2010, word surfaced that Continental and United were deep in talks to merge. Almost immediately, people began to question Cleveland’s future. At the time, United had hubs in Chicago and Washington DC, both of are not too far away from Cleveland.
Talks led to action in early-May 2010, when Continental and United announced that they would merge to form what would then be the world’s largest airline. For many in Cleveland, they could only speculate on what would happen.
The City of Cleveland and United Sign An Agreement
On September 13, 2010, Continental Airlines, under the UAL Corporation, reaffirmed its commitment to Cleveland, agreeing to maintain specified levels of air service at the airport when the two airlines combined their global networks upon closing of their proposed merger.
The two airlines signed an agreement with the Ohio Attorney General, whose office reviewed the merger on its effect to Ohio’s air transportation. The Attorney General believed the merger would enhance competition in Ohio.
The carriers said they believed the merger would deliver air service for Cleveland and its other hubs that would be far superior to the service that the carriers could have provided if they had not combined.
Under the agreement, the carriers had to maintain at least 90 percent of their combined flights at the airport for two years after the airlines merge. After that, it all depends on whether the carrier makes money.
If the merged company has a system-wide slump in departures — from a double dip recession, say, or some other setback — the company would be allowed to cut Hopkins departures more deeply. But the cuts cannot exceed 25 percent more than the average reduction in domestic departures at the airlines’ other hubs in Newark, Houston, Chicago, Denver, Washington Dulles, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
If the Cleveland hub performed more than 15 percent worse than the new airline’s overall network and loses more than $25 million, then the airline can cut minimum daily departures close to 75 percent of current levels.
If the airline lost more than $40 million at its Hopkins operations in the second year of the deal, the settlement agreement allows the airline to cut its Hopkins departures by 50 percent in the third year and 85 percent in years four and five.
Two Years Later
Two years after the merger, United and Continental were still in Cleveland. At this time, the airline was free to change its mind about keeping Cleveland as a hub, but United’s management and the City of Cleveland were optimistic.
“United is proud to call Cleveland a hub and serve the city’s business and leisure travelers,” said United spokesman Joe Micucci in Chicago told The Plain Dealer. “We continue our partnership with local business and community leaders to provide viable and sustainable air service for Cleveland.”
In fact, the airline was launching new flights from Cleveland during the 2012 summer. It launched one more daily flight each to Boston, Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, Washington Dulles, Portland (Maine), San Francisco, and St. Louis, Mo.; and three more daily flights to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Additionally, it started flights to Nashville in December 2012 and Oklahoma City and Austin in 2013.
Also in 2013, the carrier announced plans to hold its 2014 shareholders meeting in the city.
However, this would all change as the carrier announced that it would de-hub the city. United CEO Jeff Smisek informed employees that the carrier will be reducing daily departures by more than 64% spread over several stages beginning in April 2014.
Smisek claimed in the letter that the hub in Cleveland, which United inherited as part of a 2010 merger with Houston based Continental Airlines, hasn’t been profitable for over a decade, and that it has generated “tens of millions of dollars of losses.” The email also says the city lacks the requisite demand for “hub-level connecting flying.”
As per the tentative details, the carrier will keep mainline flying levels roughly the same (reducing from 26 to 25 daily departures). Regional flying, however, will take a much larger haircut with a more than 70% reduction in departures. Total capacity as measured by available seat miles will decline by about 36%, and the reductions will be phased in over April, May, and June 2014 in equivalent increments.
Once the reductions are fully implemented, United’s overall service offering will be reduced to 72 peak-day departures serving 20 destinations. While United has not yet made a final decision as to which destinations will be eliminated, service to all of United’s remaining hubs (Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles, Houston Intercontinental, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Newark) will be retained, as well as flights to key business markets such as New York La Guardia, Washington Reagan, and Boston. Leisure destinations marked for retention include Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Fort Myers, and Orlando.
On Thursday, June 5, we will take a look at Cleveland Hopkins post United de-hubbing.
Contact the author at Jack.Harty@airchive.com.