A TOL Master Plan…of sorts

Discussing Great Lakes Aviation

A TOL Master Plan…of sorts

It wasn’t that long ago that families would take an evening to head out to a dirt and stone patch along either Airport Highway or Eber Road. There they would observe the evening batch of flights that would move through Toledo Express. Observers would see a variety of aircraft from a Comair CRJ to a USAir 737-400, depending on the time of the year. On a recent visit at the end of July to Toledo Express, the evening visits are much different now. The observation areas are gone, mostly thanks to reasoning based on security (Eber Road) or safety (Airport Highway), and so are the various passenger aircraft as well. No longer are their passenger flights departing Toledo well into the evening hours. The terminal and parking lot are also just as barren in the evenings. The short term parking lot had 10 vehicles in it and the long term lot just a few dozen. Inside the terminal had only a few airline and rental car employees, but everyone else was gone. All of this before 8 in the evening.

We’ve heard excuse after excuse on why this has taken place. Economic downtown, 9/11, airline consolidation, too close to Detroit Metro, local buying habits, companies not supporting the local economy, airlines not interested in Toledo, gas prices increase, and so on and so forth. Was all of this unexpected? Not at all. In the 1990s former airport director John McCue warned Toledoans to “use it or lose it” when discussing airline service. So what happened? Well honestly all of the excuses have played a role, but what hasn’t been mentioned is any action to counter the effects of that. We can sit here and blame the Port Authority for hours because they are in charge, and sure they share part of the blame. So do the citizens of the area that did not support the service that was offered. Let’s keep things in perspective, it really hasn’t been that long since Toledo had nearly 40 flights a day.  Today it is at 3 when you don’t count Allegiant’s less than daily service. However, things don’t have to stay that way especially when other cities with similar challenges have succeeded in turning things around. So enough of that background, how about ideas for the future?

We’ve had some recent sparks of new ideas with privatization talks, but those have since died away and we are back to the same old routine.

Air Field Improvements

The air field itself really isn’t in that bad of shape. The main runway was recently repaved, but there are some other opportunities. A new Air Traffic Control Tower is a big piece that is missing and apparently plans are done. The hold up? No funding from the FAA to get it done. This is really something that needs to be done and the congressional delegation that covers the area needs to finally bring home the money to get it done.

I would also look to local officials raise the funds to help land a Terminal Doppler radar system for the airport. Most of these systems have been reserved for larger airports, but with local funding it could bring a much needed service to the airport – and not just for pilots in the area. The TWDR’s have the ability to do rapid scanning every minute and can provide much needed live weather radar service for the airport that is sorely missing from the NWS’s NEXRAD network.

Lastly would be a new taxiway and ramp in the NE corner of the airport to replace what is already there. You’ll see why I am recommending this in a bit.

Military Operations

Let’s be honest, government money is sought after by everyone. Many want to see lower government spending, unless it impacts them. With the possibility of a new BRAC round, or something similar, coming up then the powers that be should make is possible to land additional government assets. Right now the ANG controls much of the SE quarter of the airport, I would recommend that this be expanded all the way to the intersection of US 20A and Eber Road. What would go here? There are many options. With BRAC possibilities, any air national guard realignments could go here. Ohio has ANG bases in Mansfield and Springfield that could become targets and those assets could easily be moved to Toledo. As was the case during 9/11 and recently with the dispatch of assets to escort a Canadian airliner after an onboard threat, the significance and importance of the Toledo base is well established. Consolidation of regional assets to larger base in Toledo would be a huge boom to the area. The benefits would also likely outweigh any initial expenses for the land and any infrastructure.

Other options also could include contractors and developers when it comes to new UAV/drone operations that could benefit from being able to operate over the lake. Also the US Coast Guard could be a possible target to get a helicopter based at the facility instead of relying on the aircraft coming from Detroit to support Lake Erie.

MRO Operations

This is going to be the big one for Toledo to go after. Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul services. We’ve seen airports like Fort Wayne land operations for regional airlines to handle maintenance that has led to a level of air service that likely wouldn’t be achieved on its own merits. Toledo Express was evaluated in the past, with high enthusiasm, as a maintenance base for a regional airline. What killed the deal? Not enough hangar space. Right now Toledo is at or very near capacity on hangar space and cannot accommodate a maintenance operation that would need to house aircraft for a set period of time – indoors. So how is this handled? New hangars. Some of these should be moved into development now to take care of existing demand but also to allow the airport to attract operations that want facilities readily available. In the 1990s when American International was looking at constructing a new hub in Toledo, part of it included a new hangar to maintain its fleet. The hub fell through because hangar space was already available in Terre Haute, IN. So where should these go?

The best option for large bases for a company like AAR or other major MROs would be in the Southwest quad of the airport using the air cargo ramp. However a more practical approach would be to construct smaller hangars that could easily be filled by existing tenants needing more space or newer operations that don’t need a lot of space. The first area to build a series of new hangars would be in the Northwest quad of the airport east of Grand Aire and also west of TOL Aviation. The other options would be in the area where the current East Wing is of the passenger terminal and also in the northeast quad of the airport on the land (and to the west) of the current airport equipment garage. Now you might be asking, with part of the terminal coming down how is that going to be handled? On to the next section!

New Passenger Terminal and Airport Operations Buildings

The next big change would be an eventual new passenger terminal. This would require the removal of the existing emergency services building and air cargo facility to the west of the existing terminal. The terminal would not be anything extravagant. The purpose of the terminal would be to provide an environmentally friendly facility and also one that is low cost to operate. The existing facility is one that is a patch work of various upgrades over 50 years, but at the core it is the original structure. At some point it will be better in the long run for the passenger experience, customer experience (the airlines themselves) and in terms of maintenance costs to replace the facility. The new facility would be one that could be easily expanded as needed, have an FIS facility, and also new and functioning boarding bridges. The area for the new terminal would be west of the existing terminal from roughly where the main lobby ends (location of the administrative parking lot) and go all the way to the National Flight hangar. Over time it might be advantageous for National Flight to move into a new facility that allows them to grow and also give more room for the terminal to grow.

The existing terminal structure would be removed in this plan. Once the new terminal is up, the central portion would be torn down and a new airport services building would be constructed. This would house airport vehicles such as those used for maintenance and snow removal. Also it would house all emergency response vehicles and airport police services. Finally the east wing of the terminal, as explained already, would be torn down and replaced with an additional new hangar for the air field, possibly a new National Flight location or airline maintenance facility.

New Access Road, Parking Lots, and Museum

The last big puzzle piece for this vision (dream) would be redoing the access road to the airport with the new terminal in mind. The entrance/exit will be consolidated to the traffic light at the turnpike entrance. A one way road will go from that entrance and proceed into the airport before veering west before the existing first entrance into the parking lot. This will then go west past existing support structures before wrapping south to join up with the existing (and redone) service road that will go directly east. It will proceed east until it wrap back to the north along the existing roadway on the east side of the parking lots. It will exit it back at the turnpike traffic light after going back west.

The new access road will encircle three main features. First is a new rental car facility on the west end of the loop. The lot will be in walking distance of the terminal, so no shuttle service would be required. Then the central portion, and bulk of the loop, will be taking up by a new passenger parking lot. The parking lot would be either a free to park lot or a flat rate lot instead of a short/long term structure. This is an option that should even be discussed for the current lot. Vast majority of it is sitting empty right now and there really isn’t any point to the Port paying Republic to manage it right now and there is zero reason to have a short and long term lot.

Finally taking up the eastern half would be a new museum complex. This is just an idea for this property as something that would bring a new attraction to the area. The museum area would be similar to outdoor display of the Museum of Flight in Seattle with static aircraft displays. They would be moved onto the property through a connected ramp to the air field. it would also provide a unique staging area for any future air shows should they return. The facility would also have a building with enclosed displays and house smaller aircraft and exhibits that are special to Northwest Ohio. The museum ramp can house both civil and military aircraft and examples from the history of the Air National Guard base would likely be a positive draw to the facility. It would also be  nice to see a memorial put in place in this area for those that have passed due to accidents on or near the air field. This feature is obviously the more pie in the sky feature but it is something that could easily become a quality attraction for the area.

New Name, Finally

With all of these improvements it would be unfortunate if the facility wasn’t re-branded. Toledo Express Airport is one that doesn’t carry anything positive with it and “express” carries a negative connotation with it in the industry. There are several ways that rebranding could go with it, but it would need to be one exempt of political influence. So how could they go with it? I’ve always advocated for “Glass City International Airport” to honor the heritage of the area but also promote the customs availability of the air field. Other options could be Northwest Ohio Regional Airport, Toledo-Lucas County Regional Airport, or other variations where Regional and International could be exchanged. Naming the airport after an individual could be problematic depending on the political motivations. I would say it would be best to name it after someone who has made an impact on the area or someone involved in aerospace from the area. Naturally Jamie Farr is going to come up, but I also fee Gene Kranz would be a quality pick. He is the Toledo native, Central Catholic graduate, that was the NASA Flight Director during the Gemini and Apollo missions – including Apollo 13. Eugene Kranz Glass City International Airport doesn’t sound half bad, but might be a bit long.

Could Any of this Work?

These are wild ideas, some out of the box, some that have been echoed by others, but at the end of the day it is going to take ambition and drive to make them happen. It also requires initial investment for the future. The airport is on cruise control right now and needs an injection of capital to get things going again. It also doesn’t focus entirely on passenger service development. The challenges there are large and it would be best for the airport to focus on other areas but then have the ability to come back and be in a better position in dealing with passenger service. Options for local maintenance can really help drawn in new air service but MRO operations can also pay the bills when pax service won’t . Increase military and related operations are huge as well and can really bring in funding. The nice thing about this is that parts can be done today. Modest parking lot changes, constructing of a couple small hangars and buildings can really help inject some positive news. We’ll see what happens. These are just ideas, which is something severely lacking these days.