Discount airlines could be part of Cleveland Hopkins future to keep region competitive

CLEVELAND - Could discount airlines be part of Cleveland Hopkins' future? Airport director Ricky Smith confirmed to NewsChannel5 late Wednesday afternoon that the airport remains committed to keeping air travel in the region competitive. That includes talks with low fare carriers.

The United hub is a $4 billion economic engine for the city of Cleveland. For months, the Five on Your Side Consumer Investigators have been looking into the future of the hub, and analysts have told us the future may not be bright.

United continually says it's committed to Cleveland, and is working with city leaders to find a sustainable future in this city. The airline also said when it merged with Continental that it would not pull out, but some airline analysts question that long term.

The airport is asking businesses to support the hub by paying up to $300 more per ticket to fly out of Hopkins. Hubs traditionally charge more because of the infrastructure needed.

Hopkins airfares are the 10th highest in the country at $443 for an average fare.

Airfarewatchdog founder George Hobica told the investigators in October that Cleveland should bring in a discount carrier. It would lower fares and possibly do even more.

"If I were Hopkins, I would use the threat of having a Spirit or JetBlue come in there as leverage to keep United to their word," Hobica said.

Spirit and JetBlue traditionally bring down the average cost of all airfares in a city. JetBlue drove down prices in Pittsburgh.

When asked about price this fall, the airport sent us a statement, "The airport does not control or influence airlines pricing decisions. That being said, as we do with all matters related to our customers' interest, we have and will continue to share feedback we receive from airport passengers related to airline fares. Furthermore, we work very hard to identify measures to lower the airline's operating costs by creating new non-airline revenue streams for example, making enhancements to our parking and  concessions programs."

The airport is beginning to discuss the fact that the United hub may not be here forever. The airline is committed to Cleveland until 2015, but under a state agreement it can begin decreasing flights at any time.

In the mayor's State of the City address, Frank Jackson, said the city can't put all its eggs in one basket when it comes to United.

We asked Airport Director Ricky Smith what he thought.

"No airport wants to put all its eggs in one basket." So, we asked about bringing in a discount airline like JetBlue.

"We are talking with other carriers and prospects despite the fact we are very comfortable that United Airlines is here to stay," Smith said.

Smith added that there are fewer discount carriers in the marketplace. He no longer considers Southwest a discount carrier. He added that Cleveland has Frontier and it's a good discounter for Hopkins.

"JetBlue is out there. It's a great airline. We've had talks with JetBlue and we'll see how that works out," Smith said. "The marketplace will determine if fares come down. We are talking to a host of carriers. JetBlue may be one of them and if they were to come here they would compete for passengers like everyone else and one way they would do that would be with fares and we have to see how they respond to that."

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