CLE: "An Exceptionally Well Managed Municipal Undertaking" (It really was in 1937!)
I applaud the City of Cleveland’s recent announcement of a new Director of Port Control, Bryant L. Francis, who begins his job on May 24, 2023. In his role, Francis will oversee the port as well as the Cleveland Airport System which includes both Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE) as well as downtown’s Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL), the latter being the subject of two ongoing studies about its future as a reliever airport for CLE.
Francis is an experienced airport professional who comes most recently from Oakland International Airport after stints at airports in Long Beach, Shreveport, Boise, Detroit, Palm Springs, and at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Director Francis will be charged with managing CLE’s transformation based on a $2 billion 20-year Master Plan to fundamentally update and expand the city-owned and operated airport’s aging and less-than-inspiring terminal facilities and other critical passenger infrastructure.
Some parts of today’s terminal date to 1956, while a major expansion and modernization of the terminal was completed in 1978, with the most recent update in 2016, being largely cosmetic, and doing little to improve the overall efficiency and customer experience of the airport. The terminal has not kept up with the expectations and needs of travelers today as well as the changing nature of air traffic at CLE in a post-United hub environment.
Mr. Francis will also hopefully lead the celebration of CLE’s centennial in July 2025. I hope a big to-do is made of this important milestone. Perhaps it will be a fitting time to announce more concrete plans for a new terminal at Hopkins.
Cleveland’s airport, the oldest municipal airport in continuous use in the United States, was a pioneer in the early years of commercial aviation and an example to airports all around the world. (https://www.aviationcle.com/post/95-years-of-historic-firsts-at-cle). It had highly competent and inspiring leadership who saw the potential and economic importance of the rapidly growing new means of transportation.
The more recent history of the airport has not been so successful or inspiring. It seems like there were lengthy periods when the airport was a mere afterthought to the city administration in power or led by inexperienced political hacks or looked upon as a great source of patronage or meddling by city council.
As with other city-owned and operated assets (e.g., the West Side Market which has recently been in the news, and not for good reasons), key decisions about the future of and investments in the airport have largely been deferred, allowing CLE’s prominence and relative position in the aviation world to slip considerably. The need for a different form of airport governance, run by an independent regional board, like most other mid-sized airports, will be the subject of another article.
A Look Back to the 1930s: The era of Cleveland Airport's Greatness
In contrast to the past half century or so, there once was a time when the airport was professionally operated and recognized as an industry leader. I recently acquired a newsletter entitled Greater Cleveland: A Bulletin on Public Business by The Citizens League. The Citizens League of Cleveland was a “non-partisan association of citizens organized for the promotion of efficient government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.”
The bulletin edition from January 7, 1937, featured The Cleveland Airport: An Exceptionally Well Managed Municipal Undertaking. This was a follow up article to a previous edition of the bulletin focused on the poor management and operation of two other prominent city-owned and operated assets, the Public Auditorium and Stadium (December 24, 1936—also a very interesting read!), largely attributed to the “spoils system and to frequently changing administrations.”
The article effusively praised Major John "Jack" Berry, Commissioner of Cleveland Municipal Airport since July 1926. Even prior to his role at the airport while he was with the federal air mail service, he assisted City Manager William R. Hopkins prior to July 1925, when the airport opened, in selecting an appropriate site for the new municipal airport. He was forward-thinking and saw the growth potential of the nascent aviation industry.
Berry was by all accounts an “able, trained and competent public official.” Per the Citizens League bulletin, Berry was intensely interested in and loyal to his job, had a vision for the airport to be the best in the world, and was willing to work and sacrifice to attain that ideal. He was almost obsessed with his job, living in a small cottage on airport grounds, being affable, visible, and approachable to all, and available day or night via telephone.
In 1937, Cleveland had the largest airport in the world! It was ready to handle new 21-passenger aircraft that entered service in 1936, referring to the Douglas DC-3 operated initially by American Airlines. The newly paved airfield and other infrastructure improvements (12 miles of drainage pipes and sewers, filling of ravines and leveling of the landing area), completed under the auspices of the depression-era WPA and a $3 million federal appropriation, would allow the airport to service even larger aircraft well into the future, including anticipated 40-passenger planes.
The expansion permitted the airport to fully use its ample (for the time) 1,040 acres (Cincinnati’s airport at Lunken Field was slightly larger at 1,058 acres, but only 450 acres were actually in use in 1937). It also provided sufficient area to meet the needs of the popular National Air Races, including a better location for the grandstands along the western edge of the airfield.
The new Cleveland airport handled just a few thousand passengers during its first years of service, but that number grew to 184,017 passengers in 1936. [As a comparison, 8,693,866 passengers used CLE in 2022, a year the airport was still rebounding from the COVID pandemic.] Amazingly, one-sixth of all airline passenger service in the United States in 1935 passed through Cleveland Municipal Airport, and only New York (whose airport was still located in Newark) and Chicago airports processed more passengers than Cleveland that year. In fact, Cleveland’s passenger totals even exceeded the famous airports in Paris, London, and Berlin at that time!
The bulletin also praised Cleveland Airport’s low operating costs. The initial capital outlay to construct the airport was only $1.79 million (about $31 million in 2023 dollars) with an average operating expenditure of only about $32,000 (approximately $695,000 today) per year over the airport's first decade of operation. This compared quite favorably to other larger airports with Chicago’s $100,000, Pittsburg’s $53,000, and Oakland’s $34,000 annual cost.
The city only owned one of the fifteen structures on the airport grounds, the Administration Building/Terminal, opened in 1929, and already expanded in 1935. All other buildings were built by private aviation companies and repair and gasoline companies under lease from the city. Interestingly, the number of employees administering such an important and growing asset totaled only 15 in 1937, a testament to efficient management of staff by Major Berry.
There were some suspicions of graft raised when the site for Cleveland’s new airport was selected related to its location (a perceived long distance from Public Square) and the large amount of land purchased. There has never been any proof of corruption, but rather, the airport’s location was later proved to be farsighted (of course, not today, as development has largely surrounded CLE).
While other sites closer to the city center were considered, objections to those were raised (likely by neighbors), and Major Berry knew that particular location on Berea Road was freer from fog (and lake effect snow) than any other similar sized area in the vicinity of Cleveland. The distance of 8.5 miles from Public Square compared favorably to the average distance of 10.3 miles from the business center for ten other large airfields.
It should be noted that the rapid growth of Cleveland’s airport at the time was not only the result of excellent management and vision by Major Berry and his team, but also of the city’s strategic location on the main airways of the time, particularly between New York and Chicago.
There was a brief time in 1932, when the Mayor of Cleveland, Raymond T. Miller, sought to use the airport staff for political spoils. Major Berry refused to tolerate this and resigned his position. But pressure from the business community and an upset public compelled the mayor to call Berry back to the airport. Per the bulletin, “The people will probably see to it that this is the last attempt to substitute political incompetency for efficient and economical service at the airport.” If only that were the case over the ensuing decades!
For a photographic visit to the airport in 1937, check out this earlier article: https://www.aviationcle.com/post/a-visit-to-cle-in-the-1930s