As COVID-19 Tanks Air Travel, Akron-Canton Airport Wrestles with an Uncertain Future

May 19, 2020

Facing an unprecedented drop in business and the loss of a major air carrier, Akron-Canton Airport is counting on passengers gradually starting to fly again. But what does that look like?

The safety of all passengers and staff is President and CEO Ren Camacho's top priority. The airport is installing plexiglass shields in high traffic areas, putting in social distancing markers and increasing sanitation standards. All staff have their temperatures taken and have to wear face masks.

"While we don't require individuals wear face coverings through the airport, such as our passengers, we highly, highly recommend it. I say that only because all of our airlines currently require face coverings as of May 11," Camacho said. 

Social distancing isn't a problem at Akron-Canton right now. Camacho said since the pandemic started, there have been flights with as few as four passengers aboard.

"We’re down 95% in terms of passenger traffic. Huge number from where we were this time last year, let alone earlier in the year before the pandemic outbreak." 

But when the coronavirus pandemic starts to ease, Camacho thinks air travel will slowly start to bounce back.

"Things are changing each and every day. We are concerned about the airlines themselves and where they’re going long term, their viability… and so they may be even slower to launch new air service. We’re keeping that in mind as we forecast for the future."

The airport could see as much as $2.8 million in losses by the end of the year. That includes the news that Delta has canceled its flights out of Akron-Canton through September in favor of its routes at Cleveland Hopkins International.

CAK vs CLE
Camacho said through the CARES Act, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to maintain service to all markets, but not every airport.

"And guess what? They can pick and choose between CAK and CLE, which of those two airports they can fly out of."

That leaves Akron-Canton vulnerable. Camacho said they've seen their flights drop down to a total of just three or four per day. 

"So we're looking to get additional congressional support to help us with this notion and seeing what we can do to segregate us as a separate and distinct metropolitan statistical area or MSA from CLE."

Gate expansion continues
But even in the face of all this turmoil, Camacho said Akron-Canton is still pushing ahead with its planned $34 million gate-expansion project set to open by the end of the year.

"All of the airlines have told us they want to see the project through. They’re committed to gates and the new project… They are optimistic they will continue to service Akron-Canton, it’s just what does that look like? Is it from 25 flights a day to 10? Is it 12? Is it 20?"

Ren Camacho, left, took over as CEO of Akron Canton Airport in October 2018, succeeding Rick McQueen.
Credit TIM RUDELL / WKSU

He's trying to stay optimistic, but Camacho wishes he had a crystal ball. He thinks in a year's time, the airport will be in much better shape, but it still won't be back to normal. 

"I think we’ll be at a 50-60 optimistically percentage of where we are today. Maybe 10-12 flights from the various carriers. But the concern is not only the destinations, but the frequency. How many times are they flying to the Chicagos and the Charlottes and the Philadelphias? If it's once a day...  folks may decide to go to other airports and not come back. So that’s the challenge that we face."

Camacho says Akron-Canton has the support of major businesses in the region, be it Timken, Smuckers, Diebold or Goodyear.

"We generate over a billion dollars in economic impact to the greater Akron Area, which in itself proves our viability and importance. So we have to make sure that we remain viable for our partners and for the community at large."