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Akron-Canton Airport marks 75 years with eye toward passenger growth

The Repository logo The Repository 10/11/2021 Edd Pritchard, The Repository

GREEN – The number of people flying commercial airlines in the United States has increased over the past year but still trails pre-pandemic levels, according to statistics collected by the Transportation Security Administration.

In recent months more than twice as many people have passed through TSA checkpoints around the country each day than during the pandemic in 2020. But this year's figures still fall below traveler numbers reported in 2019.

Officials at Akron-Canton Airport expect it will be April or May before passenger numbers at the local airport recover from the hit taken because of coronavirus pandemic.

United Airlines flight 4594 lands on runway 23 at the Akron-Canton Airport in Green in late September. The CRJ7 aircraft was inbound from Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The airport and airlines slowly are recovering passenger losses that occurred because of the coronavirus pandemic. © Scott Heckel/Canton Repository United Airlines flight 4594 lands on runway 23 at the Akron-Canton Airport in Green in late September. The CRJ7 aircraft was inbound from Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The airport and airlines slowly are recovering passenger losses that occurred because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the pandemic, 60% of the travelers passing through Akron-Canton Airport were taking business trips, said Ren Camacho, president and chief executive officer. These days, business travelers account for less than 10% of the passengers.

a sign on the side of a building: Akron-Canton Airport © Repository file photo Akron-Canton Airport

"We're trying to get business travel back," Camacho said.

Businesses aren't ready, however, to put employees into airplane seats, he added.

Ren Camacho, president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Airport, speaks in June before the first Breeze Airways flight from the airport to Tampa. © Scott Heckel/Canton Repository Ren Camacho, president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Airport, speaks in June before the first Breeze Airways flight from the airport to Tampa.

Marking 75 years

But there is hope as Akron-Canton prepares to mark its 75th anniversary this coming week.

Breeze Airways launched service at Akron-Canton during the summer, while American and United have plans to add flights in the coming months.

On Wednesday, travelers will be greeted by airport employees as part of a thank-you event. Complimentary refreshments, prizes and swag will be offered.

The day marks 75 years since the federal government turned the Akron-Canton Airport over to local officials in Stark and Summit counties.

The Civil Aeronautics Authority selected farmland bordering the two counties as a spot for a modern airport. The federal agency invested $2 million to buy land and build three 5,600-foot runways, then gave the property to the commissioners of Stark and Summit counties.

"War seldom produces many community benefits but a brainchild born during the last conflict was 'adopted' by grateful citizens ...," Ardent Cullison wrote in The Canton Repository the day after the airport's dedication Oct. 13, 1946.

The new airport didn't have a terminal. A permanent terminal was built in 1955 and expanded in 1962. The expanded terminal and tower built in the early 1960s has been renovated several times, but still is used today.

Airlines moved to Akron-Canton in 1948. United and American were among the first, and both still serve the airport with daily flights. Spirit and start-up Breeze Airways also provide flights.

Passenger service at Akron-Canton reached its height in 2012 when more than 1.8 million people used commercial service. But that was before airlines began merging, eventually dropping to only four major carriers.

The big blow for Akron-Canton was Southwest Airline's acquisition of AirTran, which has been the primary carrier offering low-cost service to Boston, Milwaukee and other cities visited for business travel.

Slow recovery from pandemic

Passenger numbers were showing signs of rebounding in early 2020, before the pandemic.

Camacho said businesses remain hesitant to travel, in part because of travel restrictions between some countries. While Akron-Canton doesn't have international service, it connects with major airports that do.

A regional air service task force that includes large businesses and other organizations has been created in a bid to gauge when air travel might resume, Camacho said. Along with discussing general travel plans, the task force is monitoring sporting events and concerts to see if people are ready to visit large, crowded venues.

Working with the task force has led to projections that business travel will accelerate next spring, Camacho said. Airlines are paying attention to the trend.

American Airlines will resume service to Philadelphia in November. United Airlines has plans to resume service to Houston in April, thanks to an $850,000 federal Small Community Air Service Development grant.

Still targeted by Akron-Canton is the resumption of service to Atlanta by Delta Airlines.

A commercial air service restoration program started by JobsOhio will help fund efforts to bring new service. Camacho worked with local governments, businesses and private organizations to generate more than $1 million as matching funds for the state program.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 11 to correct the amount of local funds pledged to the JobsOhio program. 

JobsOhio played a role in bringing Breeze Airways to Akron-Canton and Columbus. Breeze currently serves three markets from Akron-Canton, but Camacho hopes the new airline will be adding destinations as it grows.

"Slowly but surely we're getting service back," Camacho said.

Travelers walk across the Tree of Life terrazzo floor in the gate atrium at the Akron-Canton Airport in Green. © The Repository / Scott Heckel Travelers walk across the Tree of Life terrazzo floor in the gate atrium at the Akron-Canton Airport in Green.

Modernizing for the future

Although passenger numbers have declined, the airport has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to modernize operations over the past 15 years.

A new string of gates opened in 2006. In 2008, the airport launched a 10-year program that included expansion of the TSA screening area, additional parking and expanded entrance roads, and improvements in the ticket wing.

Behind the scenes, it extended the north-to-south runway, added U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facilities, and replaced the aircraft rescue and firefighting maintenance facility.

The final piece was the extension of the gates built in 2006 and demolition of gates dating to the 1960s. Work on the gates was completed during the pandemic.

Smaller projects have included adding charging stations for electric vehicles in the parking area.

A charging station also has been installed for electric aircraft. Camacho said the airport is part of a project testing electric aircraft. Meanwhile, airlines have been investing in development of electric aircraft, anticipating future use of the equipment.

Aside from being a center for travel, Akron-Canton is home to industrial parks, a museum, dozens of businesses and even a candy factory. The facility supports hundreds of jobs and has potential for creating more.

The airport is a huge asset for the region, said Ray Hexamer, president and CEO of the Stark Economic Development Board. Companies that consider locating in the region always ask about transportation, including air travel.

"Having that 10 minutes up the road is an advantage when we are working to bring a business to Stark County," Hexamer said of the airport.

Existing companies also take advantage of the facility. Timken Co., FirstEnergy, J.M. Smucker Co. and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. have company aircraft and hangars at the airport, Camacho said.

There also are fixed-base operators — Avflight and McKinley Air — at the airport that service privately owned airplanes. Castle Aviation provides freight and charter service from facilities at Akron-Canton.

The industrial parks on the southern and western sides of the airport are home to hundreds of jobs. Hexamer said having the property available provides an opportunity to draw more companies and jobs to the area.

Camacho said revenue generated through non-aeronautical operations such as the industrial parks help to keep make the airport more affordable for commercial airlines.

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Akron-Canton Airport marks 75 years with eye toward passenger growth

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