Continental Airlines' CLE Hub: Part 2
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
CO’s Growing (& Shrinking) Commitment
In Part 1 of this series of three articles on its hub at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE), we saw how Continental Airlines took advantage of the service gaps resulting from cutbacks by Cleveland’s traditional number one air carrier, United Airlines, in the mid-1980s, to grow a large regional hub operation in the central United States. The first decade of that hub saw steady growth and investment by the airline in its service, staffing, and facilities at CLE. Continental continued the development of its three “underdeveloped franchise hubs,” Newark (EWR), Houston (IAH), and CLE-to the tune of some $156 million during the 1990s. While the number of mainline jet departures steadily declined, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, its Continental Express division saw operations soar. Although Continental had repeatedly expanded and then scaled back its operations at Hopkins, it stated its intention to weather the storm and maintain a significant presence in Cleveland. We shall see the year 1999 was to be a momentous one for Continental at CLE.
Continental Express Takes Off from Concourse D In January 1999, the airline announced another expansion of service in spring and summer, mainly by its Continental Express division, adding flights to eight new destinations and increasing flights on some key existing routes. New cities added included Montreal (YUL), Long Island MacArthur Airport (ISP), Memphis (MEM), Omaha (OMA), Manchester (MHT), Burlington (BTV), Charlotte (CLT), and Jacksonville (JAX). Additional ExpressJet service was added to St. Louis (STL), Providence (PVD), and Chicago (ORD), while mainline flights were added to Los Angeles (LAX-4 flights daily), San Francisco (SFO-3), Seattle (SEA-2), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW-3), and a new route to Portland, Oregon (PDX-1). In tandem with these increased flight schedules, on May 13, 1999, the airline formally dedicated, and on May 16, 1999, opened a $98 million new, sleek, state-of-the-art, “best in industry” (per CO) 160,000 square-foot Concourse D. Unlike the other concourses at the airport, the facility does not branch directly off the main terminal, but rather, is connected to Concourse C by an underground tunnel fitted with moving walkways and featuring whimsical artwork of giant metal “paper” airplanes and aluminum cut-out airplanes & scurrying travelers by Cleveland artists.
The light and airy new concourse boasted 12 gates along the west side of the concourse for either larger Continental jets (like the 128-passenger Boeing 737) or Continental Express Embraer regional jets, as well as 24 turboprop loading positions at four gates on the east side of the concourse. The concourse was designed so that an airline could convert the turboprop positions into 12-14 additional jet gates as the need arises.
The new facility eliminated shuttle bus transfers from gates to Continental Express flights parked on the ramp, along with the need for the three gates at the end of Concourse A (A9, A9A, A11) still used by the regional carrier. This was the first totally new concourse to be built in Cleveland in 30 years. If business prospered, the airline had considered building a second tunnel from Concourse D to the main terminal building, allowing Continental Express customers to bypass Concourse C. Also, in the airport's 2012 Master Plan, an extension of the main terminal to the southeast connecting directly to Concourse D was proposed. Neither of these proposals ever came to fruition.
"Our new concourse at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport brings increased comfort and convenience to our passengers," said Chairman and CEO Gordon Bethune. "Continental is committed to better serving the Cleveland community. From new London service (see below) to additional opportunity with this new state-of-the-art facility, Continental is growing with Cleveland.”
The expansion was funded principally by a combination of tax-exempt special facilities revenue bonds (issued in March 1998) and general airport revenue bonds (issued in December 1997) by the City of Cleveland. Continental unconditionally guaranteed the special facilities bonds and entered into a long-term lease with the city under which rental payments will be sufficient to service the related bonds. A modified version of this agreement is still in effect today and guarantees monthly payments of approximately $1 million through 2027, although Concourse D has been closed since 2014. The concourse construction project actually consisted of three parts: the 1,000-foot-long, glass-lined building, a 40-foot-deep underground tunnel from the new concourse to the existing C Concourse, and massive paving 11 to 14 inches thick on both sides of the new concourse.
In order to construct the tunnel without disrupting the constant flow of taxiing aircraft, Morse Diesel, the construction manager, phased the tunnel construction, using a technique known as "cut and cover." An 80' tall control tower to manage ground operations was also constructed. Architects were KCF/SHG of Washington, DC and Robert P. Madison International of Cleveland. These firms won an honor award in the new-building category in the annual awards competition of the Cleveland Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in November 1999.
Contractors removed about 200,000 yards of dirt, which the city reused for future airport expansion. To make room for the concourse, rental-car operations had to be moved to a business park nearby and their former sites demolished. Because the area was once residential, excavators found pieces of houses and cars. "It was like an archeological dig," said Keith Johnson, a Morse Diesel vice president in charge of the project. Retail shops in Concourse D initially included Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, American Bagel, Pizza Hut Express, Juice Works, TCBY, and a Home Turf Sports Grill all operated by Host Marriott Services. Cone-shaped structures rise from each end of the 900-foot-long, 28-foot-wide tunnel, partly decorative, partly functional. The cones help illuminate the tunnel with skylights and contain escalators and stairs. In an editorial lauding the “elegant concourse,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated, “In fact, given that a common perception of the airport is of a cramped layout hemmed in by Cleveland and Brook Park, those who stumble upon newly opened Concourse D may be startled that space could be found for such an addition. Something had to go, however, and that was the old car-rental area, now replaced by a gleaming new structure off Rocky River Drive”
Cleveland Plain Dealer architecture critic, Steven Litt, gave the new Concourse D high marks, along with the new rental car facility. Here are some excerpts from his review from August 8, 1999:
Airport envy is not a pretty feeling. Unfortunately for Clevelanders, it can be a familiar one. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport compares poorly with glossy new air terminals across the country and around the world. The newer airports are as important to the egos of their cities as the great train stations were a century ago. They embody the excitement of travel, the drama of flight and the central role of air travel in the global economy. No wonder airports are some of the world's most spectacular new buildings. They include Kansai Airport in Japan, built on a man-made island off Osaka and designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano. Seen from the air, Kansai looks like a giant, streamlined silver wing ready to take flight. The new Denver International Airport, designed by C.W. Fentress, J.H. Bradburn and Associates of Denver, has a main terminal roofed with a giant fabric tent whose snow-white peaks and valleys echo the Colorado Rockies. Such airports are triumphal entries to their cities. Cleveland's airport, with its narrow, low, poorly lighted concourses, stained and frayed carpets and smallish main atrium, is more of a back door. The message to travelers: Welcome to a second-class city. Ironically, when Cleveland's main terminal was built in 1956, it was praised widely as one of the best airport buildings of its time. Since then, despite piecemeal expansions and renovations, it has fallen far off the pace…. Continental hub Meanwhile, the city hasn't ignored the public side of air travel. In the past year, the airport has experienced a wave of new construction, some of it quite good. In May, Continental Airlines, which operates one of its three national hubs in Cleveland, opened its gleaming new $98-million Concourse D, to handle expanded service on narrow-body jets. Concourse D displaced the airport's former car rental facility, relocated last year in a snazzy new $40 million facility at nearby Cleveland Business Park, off Springdale Ave. at Rocky River Dr…. The bad news is that the airport's three main concourses and main terminal are not scheduled for significant improvements or replacement any time soon. That being the case, the airport's overall image isn't likely to change in a big way. The good news is that Concourse D and the new car rental facility are worthy of national attention. They have the first-class feel so noticeably lacking at the rest of the airport. Concourse D…, sets a new standard for passengers on narrow-body commuter jets and propeller-driven airplanes. Project architect J. Richard Pinnell gave the concourse some of the grandeur of the newer concourses at major airports around the country. Concourse D is, in essence, a 1,000-foot-long, 80-foot-wide observation deck, enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass panels, with an overhanging roof that creates shade and minimizes the glare. The sense of light and openness inside is a vast improvement over the airport's three main concourses. Big-plane amenities The building endows travel on smaller passenger aircraft with a new dignity. Passengers board Continental's new Brazilian-made 50- and 37-seat Embraer jets not by riding shuttle vans to the concrete apron outside, but by striding down standard Jetway bridges from the main gates at the concourse level. Passengers using prop-driven planes will still board from the apron, but a Continental spokesman said the airline will replace those planes with jets within five years. Like concourses at the big airports in Atlanta and Denver, Concourse D can't be reached directly from the main terminal by an above ground walkway. It's a "midfield" concourse, linked to a point halfway out Concourse C by an 800-foot-long underground walkway with a moving sidewalk inside. The entries to this linkage are marked by 55-foot-high conical towers, with escalators leading down to the moving sidewalk, 30 feet below the jet apron overhead. Public art in the towers and the walkway is top quality. New York artist Andy Yoder, a former Clevelander, created four oversized "paper" airplanes, made of aluminum, which dangle from wires in the escalator towers. They strike exactly the right lighthearted note. Inside the underground walkway, Cleveland artist Mark Howard has created a nearly continuous frieze of metal cutout wall panels that evoke propellers, wings and runway attendants serving planes. The work enlivens what could have been a monotonous journey between concourses. Everyone involved deserves credit for the public art. Continental footed the $400,000 bill. The city insisted that the artists have local ties and that they be chosen by a panel including local art experts. Shaker Heights art dealer Ernestine Brown oversaw the project…. Sadly, the skywalk and main terminal are central to the Cleveland Hopkins experience. Concourse D and the new rental car facility are on the edges. It's good that the city and Continental Airlines have set high standards in new facilities on the periphery. But that doesn't eliminate the need for bigger improvements at the heart of the airport. Cleveland's renaissance should extend to the transportation hub where most visitors get their first impression of the city.
In addition, the project involved another $50 in improvements to Concourse C to allow it to accommodate additional jet aircraft, enhancements to the President's Club, expansion of the ticketing area, a new baggage handling system for CO, a redesigned and expanded C security entrance. and a new hydrant fueling system to serve existing operations.
Continental Airlines not only invested in new facilities but also in new staff to handle the increasing traffic. At this time, the airline had about 3,300 employees based at its Cleveland hub, including pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents, mechanics, and workers for its Chelsea Catering (flight kitchen) subsidiary.
Nonstop Transatlantic Service (Finally!) By mid-1999, Continental and Continental Express had grown to offer about 270 daily departures from the Cleveland hub. As a result of this growth and intensive lobbying on the part of local business and political leaders, Continental started Cleveland’s first regularly scheduled non-stop flight to Europe on June 30, 1999, with a daily departure to London-Gatwick (LGW) as flight CO66. (Note: In addition to a variety of seasonal charter flights to Europe over the years, scheduled charter service was operated from Cleveland to various locations in the former Yugoslavia on JAT Yugoslav Airlines for two decades starting in the mid 1970s. And both Pan Am and later Delta operated one-stop direct service between Cleveland and London-Gatwick via Detroit for a brief time between June 13, 1991, and June 1, 1993, on Airbus A310 aircraft.) The service operated using a Boeing 757-200 fitted with 16 BusinessFirst seats and 156 coach seats. As far back as January 1989, airline officials stated that European service was a long-term objective for its CLE hub, especially with the headquarters of BP America located in Cleveland at that time (but which abruptly pulled out of the city in 1998). While Continental was awarded authority for the route in 1998, it was extremely difficult to obtain the commercially viable slots at Gatwick, which were necessary to operate the service.
Officials from Continental and the Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau made concerted efforts to sell the flight, particularly in the United Kingdom (UK). The bureau hosted tour operators from Britain, who got a look at Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, including a baseball game at Jacobs Field, a trip to the Cedar Point amusement park and the Lake Erie islands, and a return to downtown for a cruise boat view of the Fourth of July fireworks off Edgewater Park. Later in July, the bureau hosted a group of magazine and newspaper writers from the UK. CO offered special stopover fares to appeal to independent-minded and experienced tourists heading, for example, to Las Vegas or Los Angeles via Cleveland, which local tourism people packaged with visits to Playhouse Square theaters, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. These efforts seemed to have paid off. In the first full year of service, the flight attracted approximately 80,000 passengers, about a 65% load factor. According to Continental Airlines’ Cleveland Hub Senior Director at the time, Dante Marzetta, “The flight between Cleveland and London is even more successful than we expected.” Supporting the route's robust performance was Continental's above-average reliability. The flight to London was cancelled only twice in its first year for a 99.5% dispatch reliability rate. There was talk of eventual flights to Paris and Frankfurt once the hub grew even larger.
Despite some complaints by passengers about the relatively small size of the narrowbody 757 aircraft and slow lines at US Customs & Immigration at CLE (obviously an ongoing and long-time complaint!), passenger levels were enough to make the flight a moneymaker. "We couldn't be more pleased," said John Slater, Continental's senior director of sales for the Midwest. He said the carrier has enjoyed strong demand in peak times and held its own during the slow winter months. Flights through September 2000 were almost all booked.
As expected, business travelers were the key to profits. They accounted for 8% of traffic, but 30% of revenues. It was hoped that a wide-body aircraft someday might take the place of the narrow-body 757 on this intercontinental route, as Continental had taken delivery of a new fleet of 767-200ER and 767-400 aircraft. Alas, this was never to occur.
The Early 2000s and Aftermath of the September 11 Attacks
After serving a peak of 13,288,059 passengers in 2000, with Continental offering about 300 daily flights from its hub, air traffic at CLE plummeted in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Cleveland’s position relative to many other major airports in the world has declined accordingly. Despite this setback, CLE became Continental’s first all-jet hub in 2001.
However, by 2003, Continental started code sharing with CommutAir in Cleveland using Bombardier Q200s and Q300s turboprops to nearby destinations under the Continental Connection banner. Other turboprop operators would also feed flights to the hub over the years.
In May 2004, Larry Kellner, then Continental’s COO and soon-to-be CEO, told a local audience that the strong local travel base, better than Pittsburgh’s and Cincinnati’s, bodes well for the future of the Continental Airlines’ hub in Cleveland. But the trend toward regional jets will continue in Cleveland and throughout the airline business, "The world is going to continue to move to smaller planes flying more nonstops," Kellner said.
Kellner also said the strong travel market in Cleveland helped the airline maintain its Cleveland hub while US Airways had struggled in Pittsburgh. Earlier that month US Airways said it would scrap its hub at Pittsburgh International Airport by fall and focus on point-to-point service, eliminating many flights. Continental also struggled in the poor economy and the aftermath of September 11, but Kellner said it planned to grow by focusing on its employees, customer service and paying attention to what travelers want. "I think if you liked the last 10 years of Continental in Cleveland, you’re going to like the next 10 years," Kellner said.
In Part 3 of this series, we will look at the start of Continental's large expansion of the hub announced with great fanfare, including the second nonstop transatlantic flight from Cleveland to Paris, followed by the collapse of the world economy in the Great Recession, the announcement of the merger of Continental Airlines and United Airlines, and the concluding chapter of the Cleveland hub and its immediate aftermath. Stay tuned!