An Airport Rises Out of Lake Erie I: Burke Lakefront Airport-A Brief Visual History
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL), located downtown on the shores of Lake Erie, is a general aviation airport and an FAA-designated reliever to the Northeast Ohio’s primary airport, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE). Opened in 1947 on a former landfill and reclaimed land with a 2,000-foot dirt runway (extended to 3,600 feet), the airport used to see much more traffic (both general/corporate aviation, as well as regularly scheduled airlines, most notably TAG and Wright, based at BKL, and the first incarnation of Midway Airlines in 1979-80) than it does now.
In 1957, Burke added a 1,600-foot hard-surface extension to its 3,600-foot dirt runway extending its length to 5,200 feet. A parallel taxiway was completed in summer 1959, and a new 6,200-foot parallel runway was opened in 1967, and eventually expanded to 6,604 feet and equipped much later with an instrument landing system (ILS).
Major improvements were made to the airport during the tenure of Mayor Thomas Burke, and in 1958, the Cleveland city council voted to name the airport in his honor, officially dedicating it on October 9, 1960.
Below is a series of aerial images of BKL from 1957-2018 (First 5 photos, courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project, and Aerial Agents via Cleveland Scene for the last one).
Ground was broken for new passenger terminal at BKL on February 20, 1959. The elegant mid-century modern passenger terminal was dedicated in October 1960 and opened for airline travel in early 1961. It had 3 ground-level gates, a five-story air traffic control tower and a 2nd floor restaurant with panoramic views of the airfield and lake.
In anticipation of continued airline growth, the terminal was almost doubled with a 400-foot “west concourse” in late 1968, adding more modern ticket counters and two more gates. It was originally hoped that feeder airlines such as Lake Central, Mohawk or Piedmont would start service from BKL, but those larger local service carriers never did.
In the wake of airline deregulation in the United States, another brand-new airline chose Cleveland’s downtown Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL) as one of its initial destinations from its home base at Chicago’s Midway Airport, launching service on DC-9s on November 1, 1979. Five flights were offered on weekdays and four on weekends between the two close-in airports. Several airfare gimmicks, now allowed in the newly deregulated environment, included 33-cent standby fares on weekends, and normal one-way fares ranging from $33 to $49 versus the lowest available price of $67 one-way. The other involved a pre-paid book of 10 tickets with prices guaranteed for a year.
Midway’s marketing pitch for Cleveland was “Call Midway and kiss Hopkins goodbye.” Less than a year later, however, Midway kissed Burke goodbye instead. It seems that the smaller airport on the shores of Lake Erie and subject to fog and other adverse weather conditions, did not have a precision instrument landing system that caused 33 Midway flights to divert to CLE during the winter season. This caused the airline to incur additional costs in moving passengers between the airports as well as flight delays. Midway had already been forced to move to Hopkins May 1, 1980 while the main runway at BKL was being resurfaced. Passenger surveys did not show a strong preference for BKL over CLE, so the airline decided not to move back to the downtown airport. This kindled renewed debate on the future role of Burke Lakefront airport which consistently operated in the red and was (and is still today) subsidized by Hopkins.
Another airline made a move to Hopkins after operating solely from Burke Lakefront Airport for its entire existence, Cleveland’s hometown carrier, Wright Airlines. It announced in May 1980 that it would add service from CLE to the Ohio cities of Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton, while decreasing but continuing these services at BKL along with its main route to Detroit City Airport (DET).
A visual tour of Burke's terminal today (all photos taken by author on August 29, 2020)
Airline traffic peaked in 1979 with a bit under 500,000 passengers, while only 22,590 passengers used the airport in 2019. Currently, only Ultimate Air Shuttle provides two-three roundtrip flights on weekdays from BKL to Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport (LUK). Note: Due to continued COVID-19 challenges, all Ultimate Air Shuttle destinations were suspended until Spring 2021, effective September 22, 2020.
In 2016, Landmark Aviation, now Signature Flight Support, completed a new hangar and attractive new fixed base operation (FBO) terminal at Burke.
Today, the terminal also serves as the home to the International Women’s Air & Space Museum and several other corporate and city government tenants.
Controversy has brewed for decades on whether this is the best use for lakefront property, particularly in light of the sharp decline in traffic. Many articles have been written about the future of Burke Lakefront Airport including Garret Forst's academic thesis, "Airport Infrastructure in the Shrinking City: Planning for Smart Decline in Cleveland’s Regional Airport System and Its Role in a Dynamic Urban Future," and "Lies, Damn Lies and the 450 Acres of Prime Real Estate That is Burke Lakefront Airport" in Cleveland Scene. And several proposals have been floated about alternative uses for the property, including by the Green Ribbon Coalition.
The future of BKL will be the topic of upcoming articles here. Stay tuned.