Who uses Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront? Advocates make their case as city prepares to discuss future of airport

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Nearly a third of all non-training flights at Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport involve medical transportation, from organ transplants to air ambulance services or patients coming for treatment.

“It’s an important niche that Lakefront serves that I don’t think many people know about,” said Tim Dixon, chief financial officer of Aitheras Aviation Group, which provides medical transportation and charter flights from Burke.

Indeed, aside from the Cleveland National Air Show — which draws tens of thousands of spectators to Burke for three days each September — most Cleveland residents probably don’t know who uses the small airport or why.

That could change this year as the city prepares to review the future of the facility, which occupies 450 acres near downtown on the shore of Lake Erie.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, on the campaign trail last fall, promised “an honest conversation about Burke’s future.” That conversation should begin soon, starting with a new study that will consider the possibility of shutting down Burke.

The city asked Cleveland-based CHA Consulting to investigate the possibility of closing Burke as part of an existing study of the airport grounds. The study expansion will cost the city an additional $205,946 and is expected to be completed in late 2022 or early 2023.

Read more: City-funded study will examine possibility of closing Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport

Should Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport be closed? Local leaders are beginning to discuss the possibility

Kim Dell, longtime executive director of the Cleveland National Air Show, has been here before.

“Every time we get a new mayor, that conversation comes up,” said Dell, who has run the air show since 1992 and is in his fourth mayor of Cleveland.

She hopes the city’s new chief executive will come to the same conclusion as previous mayors – that Burke plays an important role in the city’s overall economy, even beyond the annual air show.

Among its many functions:

* According to Paul Yagel, managing director of Signature Flight Support, which rents a hangar, provides maintenance, fuel and other support to airport users.

* Visiting professional baseball and football teams often prefer Burke, too, flying in and out of the downtown airport when they come to Cleveland to play the Guardians at Progressive Field and the Browns at nearby FirstEnergy Stadium , according to Yagel.

* Lawyers, bankers and corporate executives use the airport for its easy access to downtown, often flying leased charter flights to and from Cleveland.

The airport is also used by WJW Fox 8 and WEWS News 5, which have helicopters based at Burke; tourists coming for sporting and other events; visiting politicians, helicopter rides, flight training and more.

Additionally, until late last year, Ultimate Air Shuttle provided commercial service between Burke and Cincinnati Lunken Airport, a small airport just east of downtown Cincinnati. A drop in business travel due to the pandemic has caused the airline to shut down, although officials have not ruled out a resumption of service if demand returns.

Overall, however, operations at Burke have declined significantly in recent years, according to figures from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Burke’s traffic volume peaked in 2000, with 100,321 take-offs and landings, according to FAA data, falling to 53,987 in 2010 and 49,278 in 2015. In 2021, the airport recorded 40,296 take-offs and landings – at roughly the same number as in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. By comparison, Hopkins completed 126,999 takeoffs and landings in 2019.

Burke typically operates at a loss, subsidized by the much larger Cleveland Hopkins. This year’s deficit is expected to be about $640,000, according to the city.

Yagel, who has been with Burke since 2018, said the number of Signatures at Burke has increased in recent years, not counting 2020.

Signature is the world’s largest fixed base operator, providing aviation services at over 350 airports worldwide. The company built a new fuel storage facility in Burke last year and added a third 18,000 square foot hangar in 2016 ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

“We spent millions building these facilities,” Yagel said. “Signature wouldn’t have invested if our numbers had gone down.”

Burke as health center

Dixon, along with Aitheras, said interest in charter flights has also increased during the pandemic, with business travelers and others seeking to avoid commercial air travel.

Burke-based Aitheras offers both private charters and medical transportation from Cleveland and three Southeast cities. The company owns nine jets and employs around 50 people, including pilots, maintainers, dispatchers and others.

Dixon said Aitheras’ medical business, particularly organ transportation, is extremely time-sensitive, and the company’s location in Burke provides easy and quick access to indoor and outdoor facilities. out of town. Flying from Hopkins, he said, would be “logistically more complex, adding time and distance”.

He added, “With organ transplants, time is running out. Minutes matter.

Yagel agreed that Burke’s location is its greatest asset, minutes from local hospitals and downtown businesses.

Its location can also be a handicap, however, located on top of a landfill. The ground beneath the airport is composed primarily of sediment dredged from the nearby Cuyahoga River; construction materials and garbage are also underground, according to reports.

Yagel told a story about a recent water main break on the property that required digging. “We went down 3 feet and bottles popped up,” he said. “I don’t know what you would do with it other than an airport. A park? Who wants their kids to run on it? »

Dell also wondered how much construction could occur on an enclosed Burke. “If you walked out behind my desk and started digging, you’d come in the trash,” she said, joking that Jimmy Hoffa might be buried on airport property. “I don’t know what’s down there and I don’t know if you want to disturb that,” she said.

The City of Cleveland built a new terminal at Burke Lakefront Airport in 1961. (Norbert J. Yassanye, The Plain Dealer)Cleveland Plain Dealership

Burke Lakefront Airport

Signature Flight Support provides food, maintenance, storage and other services to those using Burke Lakefront Airport.

The air show

Dell also said it was unclear whether the annual air show could survive if Burke closed.

Yes, artists could take off and land in Cleveland Hopkins — indeed, some already do, she said.

But the airshow — run by a private, nonprofit organization — generates most of its revenue from customers who pay to watch from the airport and from vendors who operate on the property. If the organization couldn’t collect that revenue, it probably couldn’t put on the air show, which has an annual budget of about $1.7 million.

Marc Molnar, who is the director of operations for Zone Aviation, one of two flight schools based in Burke, thinks the city could do more to make the small airport a success. Adding more hangars could generate additional revenue, he said. It would be the same for the addition of a restaurant.

He said he knows many pilots who fly to smaller regional airports, including Port Clinton and Carrollton, simply because there are restaurants there. “People are looking for places to fly, something to do,” he said.

“I remember going to Carroll County on a Saturday and it was like going to LaGuardia,” he said, referring to the busy airport in New York. “For the pie and the pancakes!”

Indeed, from the mid-1960s until 1983, Burke had a restaurant on-site, occupying a prime space on the second floor of the terminal overlooking the runways and the lake.

“If they left this airport as an airport and used it better, it could do well,” Molnar said. “They could generate revenue here, if properly marketed.”

Bonny J. Streater