Last updated: 04:00 PM ET, Mon February 08 2016

Battleground Cleveland: How Power is Shifting at Small-Market Airports

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | February 08, 2016

Battleground Cleveland: How Power is Shifting at Small-Market Airports

Illustration courtesy of Thinkstock

There is a major shift in power at some of America’s mid-sized airports. Cleveland Hopkins International is the perfect example of what has been happening. Just two short years ago, United Airlines had a hub at Hopkins. The legacy carrier had 58 non-stop routes out of the airport. Fast forward two years and the number of daily non-stop destinations served by United is down to 17. That figure will soon drop to 15 by May when the airline ends service to Saint Louis and Las Vegas.  

The reductions have left Cleveland residents without direct flights to important destinations. This isolation will, however, be short lived. Low-cost carriers are already very active in mid-sized markets like Cleveland, and they are stepping in to fill any voids left when the big airlines pull out. 

Low-cost carriers moving in?

For example, Spirit, Frontier and Southwest all fly between Cleveland and Las Vegas. Clevelanders will be without a direct connection to Saint Louis for only about a month. Southwest will start service to the Gateway City from Cleveland in early June. 

Why is United pulling out of Cleveland? The city is still a center for manufacturing, though it is not the industrial juggernaut that it once was. It has successfully diversified into other sectors, such as insurance, tech, healthcare and banking. 11 Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in the city. So there is demand for flights for business travelers. 

READ MORE: Why Are Airlines So Hot for Cleveland?

Only keeping major routes

A United spokesperson explained the decision to drop the Saint Louis and Las Vegas routes recently:  "We continually review supply and demand for service in all of our markets. We made the difficult decision to end service between Cleveland and our St. Louis and Las Vegas routes because they didn't meet our expectations and are no longer sustainable."  

United does not appear to be pulling out of Cleveland altogether. It certainly does not have enough of a presence for the airport to be considered a hub or even a focus city, but the airline will still be operating 15 routes. It looks like their strategy is simply to keep the most lucrative routes (Chicago, Denver, LA, New York) and leave everything else for their budget-minded competitors. 

READ MORE: Cleveland's Tourism Renaissance Goes Way Beyond LeBron

Frontier Airlines is picking up some of the slack by adding four routes at Hopkins this year: to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland and San Francisco. 

A trend for smaller airports?

Even for popular destinations still served by legacy carriers or their regional affiliates, low-cost airlines are getting a share of the market. Southwest flies to Chicago (Midway) from Hopkins. Last year, this was one of the airport’s busiest Cleveland routes with over 200,000 passengers. American and United, meanwhile, offer service on the single most popular route out of Hopkins, to Chicago O’Hare.  

Low-cost carriers are expanding in other smaller markets as well. Buffalo Niagara International is getting new services from JetBlue and Southwest. ‘Blue is will start flying to Los Angeles in June, while Southwest will connect the Upstate New York city with Denver at around the same time. 

As legacy carriers try to appease their shareholders by cutting away routes that aren't in high demand, low-cost airlines are moving in, picking up the slack and, in some cases, hopefully offering fliers in smaller markets lower fares. 

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