Hopes Soar That RNC Will Bring Traffic, Business To Northeast Ohio's Smaller Regional Airports

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By ideastream’s Brian Bull

If last August’s GOP debate was any sign, there’ll be a crush of private jets coming into Cleveland’s airports, including so-called “reliever” airports which take in aircraft that might otherwise congest Hopkins and Akron-Canton. 

Burke Lakefront saw 100 aircraft packed tightly the night of the debate, and with far more people expected next July for the 2016 Republican National Convention, the need for runway space and hangars have regional airfields hopeful they’ll land some business. 

At the Lost Nation Airport in Willoughby, a helicopter powers down, as a fuel truck arrives to refill its tanks.  Further down its 400-acre expanse, a sleek twin-jet-engine aircraft is towed, to be flown out on one of Lost Nation’s two asphalt runways.

Inside a hangar lined with single-engine planes, Lake County Commissioner Kevin Malecek is pretty pleased with the airport, roughly 22 miles from Cleveland.  More than one-million dollars in improvements have recently been done here, including putting in a weather station and paving the runways. 

“We obviously have the ability to park planes not just in hangars but also along the runway,” he says.  “So you could be seeing dozens of potential aircraft using this as the base.  We don’t just want to be a reliever airport for the RNC, we’d like to be a hub.”

Malecek says his staff was in touch with RNC officials right after Cleveland was picked to host the event.  An RNC convention planner is coming to a meeting next month, where he’ll meet with 50 Lake County representatives to discuss opportunities….

“We know that we’re going to be having delegations stay out there, there’s seven hotels in Lake County most of them within a 5-10 minute radius of Lost Nation Airport,” continues Malecek. 

“There could be anywhere from $50-55 million in economic development.  We could see a small amount of that, $1-2 million maybe.”

For the short-term, Malecek thinks RNC delegates could be drawn to visit President Garfield’s home in Mentor, while in the long-term, he hopes they could look into doing business with hundreds of manufacturers across Lake County.

33 miles away from Cleveland, a plane taxis into Lorain County Regional Airport.  It pulls onto a new ramp finished last year, part of a $1.3 million dollar renovation that manager Doug McConnell says wasn’t done for the RNC…but puts them in good shape for the event all the same.

“We could probably take up to at least a dozen corporate aircraft with no problems.  The weight bearing capabilities, it…really, any aircraft can land here, the ramp can handle it.”

McConnell says he’ll meet with regional charter operators next month, to see if they know of any delegates who may want to fly in here.   He hopes business will increase up to 15 percent during the week of the RNC.

And then there’s Northeast Ohio Regional Airport….

“We’re gonna head out on towards the runway, show you some projects,” explains Operations Manager Bill Burgess, as he drives us down the runway in a utility vehicle. 

The runway is currently getting a drainage ditch relocated.  The airport turned 50 this year, and operators want it improved and upgraded. 

Burgess says its distance is actually an advantage over those airports closer to the RNC.

“The area around Cleveland will be restricted area, and we know that we’re just on the edge of it the restricted area…so people, general aviation, everything will be able to fly without having the restrictions of the larger airports of the Cleveland area.”

“No fly zones” are enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration when high ranking officials – like say, the Speaker of the House – fly in.  The radius of such a restricted area can range from 10 to 30 miles and all aircraft need to register with the Transportation Security Administration 24 hours in advance. 

During the 2012 RNC Convention in Florida, flights at Tampa International were subjected to these rules, so neighboring St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport got some of that traffic…and business. 

Northeast Ohio Regional Airport would not be affected by these restrictions. But at almost an hour’s drive into downtown Cleveland, it would seem to be too far removed from the heart of the RNC.  Laura Jones, the Vice President of the Ashtabula County Airport Authority – disagrees. 

“There is a very simple way to travel from Ashtabula County into Downtown Cleveland,” explains Jones. “By hopping right on 90, you go straight into downtown, you avoid a lot of those traffic spurs that come up, here and there.  It’s that opportunity to take 50 minutes to prepare for what’s ahead of you in Downtown Cleveland.” 

The RNC has reserved more than 16,000 hotel rooms  – the vast majority within a 35 mile radius of downtown Cleveland.  So far, they haven’t assigned where each delegation will stay.  So many visitors, according to one airport official, may not have decided yet where they want to fly in. 

Plenty of traffic is expected at Cleveland Hopkins, Akron-Canton and Burke Lakefront airports.   Which is why Northeast Ohio’s regional airports are hoping some of those delegates may want to forego the large-scale hassle and instead travel small… into the biggest “Grand Old Party” of the year.

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