The Not-So-Friendly Skies: United Airlines and CLE Part 2-The 1970s & 1980s
The saga of United Airlines’ long and tumultuous relationship with Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is quite noteworthy. An early and significant part of the “Mainliner” network and the “Friendly Skies,” CLE’s role in the United system took a series of ups and downs in the 1970s and 1980s, and again after the 2010 merger of United and Continental Airlines. This second in a series of several articles will focus on the buildup of United’s first hub operation at CLE and its eventual decline in the mid-1980s. (Click here for the first article.)
United and Cleveland in the 1970s: A Period of Growth
By 1972, United Air Lines was offering about 70 departures per day, all on jets, serving approximately 2.5 million passengers annually at CLE, firmly cementing its position as the number one air carrier at Cleveland (ahead of American Airlines with about half as many flights). The airline flew a wide variety of aircraft to and from Cleveland, including its brand new wide-body B747 and DC-10 "Friend Ships," along with DC-8s (including dedicated "Friend Ship Freighters"), and B727s and B737s of various models.
United also was a major employer and community partner in Cleveland. By 1973, it had a CLE workforce of approximately 1,350, with an annual payroll of $13.5 million. The airline also paid the airport $1.8 million in landing fees along with another $183,000 in rental fees every year.
United announced a significant expansion program for the airport on March 6, 1974. It was hoped this would add 200 additional jobs to the existing 1,350 employee workforce along with several other components:
Expansion of maintenance operations to include checks of DC-10s, using a hangar purchased from Eastern Air Lines, plus the addition of 75-100 new jobs. This would make CLE United's largest aircraft maintenance facility in the eastern third of the US.
Expansion of the United flight kitchen by summer of 1974 to become the fifth largest in the UAL system.
Construction of a 3,500-square foot Red Carpet Club next to gate 48 (C9 today; annual membership cost $25 per year— only about $132 today!).
Consolidation of the Pittsburgh reservations office into the Cleveland center.
New baggage claim facilities on the lower level of the old terminal to ease the crunch until the new terminal came into use a few years later.
Transformation of CLE into more of a major connection point in the next few years along with additional service to Florida and new nonstops to Las Vegas
By August 1974, UA had 87 weekday departures and offered about 9,450 seats per day from CLE. This was anticipated to rise to about 10,000 seats per day by the winter schedule.
President of United, Richard J. Ferris, finally declared CLE an official “Hub” for the first time on September 9, 1976. Plans were announced covering the following items:
CLE would grow into United’s fourth largest station after Chicago, Denver and San Francisco with about 168 total daily flights.
CLE would become a crew base for up to 1,000 flight officers and flight attendants. Initially, 210 B727 and B737 flight crew, along with 150 flight attendants, would staff the new bases, with another several hundred more expected by the end of 1977.
The airline would build a regional operations center at the southeast corner of the airport next to the air cargo area and adjacent to the hangar it acquired earlier from EA. This 17,540 square-foot building would house administrative offices for flight operations, in-flight services and medical and personnel departments.
United Airlines did develop a major Midwest connecting hub at CLE. Out of 211 daily departures at the airport, United operated 110-115 flights to 35 cities at its peak. It was United’s fourth busiest station in 1978 and employed 2,600 workers here. In 1978, United served 4.5 million passengers at CLE, and even set a daily boarding record of 9,829 passengers on December 26, 1978. Most frequent destinations by daily flights included New York-LGA (7), Chicago-ORD (6), Atlanta (5), Boston (5), Newark-EWR (5), Washington-DCA (4), Philadelphia (4), Pittsburgh (4), and Toledo, Ohio (4), but but still included a single roundtrip to nearby Youngstown, Ohio, a mere 54 nautical miles away!
As late as January 1979, United continued investing in infrastructure at CLE, with a new $1.5 million equipment garage next to its regional operations center at the airport. It also continued its sponsorship of community organizations and charitable events using its DC-10 aircraft and hub facilities to benefit local non-profits, including a Hawaiian-themed gala in March 1979, sponsored by the local “Clipped Wings” chapter of retired UA stewardesses. Held at gates 51 & 52 in the “Banjo” of the South Concourse, hors d’oeuvres were served in the third-floor rotunda reached by curved staircases, a space intended for a bar/restaurant, but typically used for Red Cross blood drives, and the like. Dinner was served aboard a DC-10 jet on layover from a flight from Florida. Other such events were held at the airport, all sponsored by United.
The Decline of United at CLE
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, several main factors contributed to the overall decline in United’s service and commitment to CLE.
Labor difficulties at United. The airline was greatly impacted by a 55-day strike by the United machinist union from March 31-May 28, 1979, which shut the airline down and crippled operations well into the peak summer season. (Labor unrest was much more common during this era. For example, United suffered another strike by its machinists prior to the holiday season in December 1975.)
A number of changes in the airline industry, primarily the Airline Deregulation Act of October 1978. This allowed greater competition in fares and routes served, which encouraged United to seek greater returns in its larger markets, particularly, Washington, DC, at the expense of CLE.
Economic woes nationally, including an overall economic recession, resulting in a projected 10% downturn in passengers.
The marked increase in fuel costs, which more than doubled since 1978.
The PATCO air traffic controllers strike of 1981 (more below).
Economic declines in Northeast Ohio, in particular, and the industrial Great Lakes and Midwest regions, from which United drew many of its connecting passengers for the Cleveland hub.
As a result, United announced on November 7, 1979, that it would slash 39 flights from its Cleveland hub, mainly seven routes to Midwest cities, as part of a cost-trimming move. Cities dropped included, Grand Rapids, Flint, Lansing, Saginaw in Michigan, Toledo, Ohio and Fort Wayne and South Bend in Indiana. Additional flight cuts were made to Norfolk, Virginia, Omaha, Nebraska, and Des Moines, Iowa, starting January 8, 1980, while the Midwest flights would end April 27, 1980, along with some reductions to Hartford, Connecticut, Baltimore-Washington (BWI), and Chicago-O’Hare. One additional flight each to Los Angeles and Kansas City (with onward flights west) were actually added with the April schedule. Total daily departures at CLE would drop from 93 to 54, while UA cut 200 flights nationwide.
This was part of a systemwide route reorganization that sought to rid the airline of routes less than 200 miles, especially those using 95-passenger B737-200 jets. United’s operation at CLE pre-figured the classic hub and spoke systems that would lead to the development of mega-hub airports, including at neighboring cities like Detroit (NW), Pittsburgh (US), and Cincinnati (DL). However, Cleveland’s spokes were just too short and operated by too large an aircraft. Some of the marginal routes reportedly carried only two dozen passengers per day. These routes were no longer viable, so UA left them for smaller commuter or regional airlines to fly with smaller and more efficient turboprops.
Shortly after these cuts took full effect, the airline announced its first round of job cuts in Cleveland on June 13, 1980. Over 400 positions were eliminated including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, food service workers, reservations agents, and others. At this time, the airline still employed about 2,200 workers in Cleveland.
Two airlines immediately stepped in to fill the service gaps left when United pulled out of those close-in cities. Freedom Airlines, founded as Commuter Airlines in Binghamton, New York, flew a fleet of five Convair 580 turboprops, purchased from USAir, to the four Michigan cities, feeding United’s diminished hub at CLE, and contracting with the larger carrier for ticketing and gate space. Freedom moved its operations to Cleveland, but eventually shut down in October 1984. Also partnering with UA, was Air Wisconsin which added DHC-7 turboprop flights to Toledo, South Bend and Fort Wayne (and on to ORD).
Air New England also entered the Cleveland market in January 1981, flying to Hartford, Providence, Rhode Island, Rochester and Albany in New York state, and eventually BWI, before shutting down on October 31, 1981. Low-cost New York Air brought fierce competition to United on the lucrative CLE-New York-LaGuardia route starting on April 19, 1981, as did People Express to Newark, effective May 1981.
Another external element in United’s gradual pull-down of the Cleveland hub was the August 1981 technically illegal strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). It was broken by the administration of President Ronald Reagan, when he fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers, bringing the nation’s air operations to a near halt. Cleveland Hopkins was one of the country's 22 busiest airports that had capacity controls imposed in the wake of the strike (it was ranked #19 at that time). The strike and another economic downturn/recession greatly impacted airlines’ bottom lines, including United’s.
By the end of 1981, United operated 39 flights to 21 cities from CLE, and served about 2 million passengers, down over 55% from 1978, and dropping CLE to United’s seventh busiest airport by 1982. The airline did add additional capacity to several routes to Michigan in December 1982 bringing its total flights back up to 46 per day.
The roller coaster ride of UA at CLE continued when it announced a 28% increase in flights in August 1983, reestablishing Cleveland as a “mini-hub,” effective December 15, 1983! In response to an economic upswing, it planned for a similar expansion at its San Francisco hub. In Cleveland, 13 new departures to cities in Florida and several regional feeder flights were added bringing the total daily flights to 59. Daily service was added to the Florida cities of Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Miami, Orlando, West Palm Beach, as well as Newark and Philadelphia, along with two daily flights to Grand Rapids, Rochester, and Buffalo.
United fiercely fought new entrants in key business markets from CLE, especially on routes to New York City. It used its powerful Apollo computer reservations system, which together with American’s Sabre system controlled 80% of the computer and travel agent market, to match and even depress airfares on routes with competition and lower the prominence of other airlines’ flights just long enough to force competitors out. As a result, New York Air ended service to Cleveland on February 29, 1984. By early 1984, United still controlled almost 42% of the Cleveland air market.
The upswing in UA flights was to be short-lived, however. United announced a 30% capacity cut at CLE on December 14, 1985, cutting flights from 49 to 34 starting in May 1986. United ultimately decided to re-deploy its assets at a new hub at Washington’s Dulles International Airport (IAD). Routes to Newark, Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando, Fort Myers and Miami were scaled back or eliminated. This allowed its competitors to gain some market share in Cleveland, particularly Eastern (MIA), Northwest (TPA), and USAir (PHL).
A few months later, in October 1986, United announced plans to further trim service at Cleveland by another 20%, effective January 6, 1987. Flights were cut to Washington-National and New York-LaGuardia, reducing daily departures from 29 to 23. United decided to beef up its larger hubs at Chicago-O’Hare and Washington-Dulles. At that time, United still had 1,340 employees at CLE and controlled 13 gates on the C Concourse.
In light of its flight reductions, the City of Cleveland asked United to relinquish control of 9 of its 13 gates to allow for other airlines to increase service. United stated that six of its gates were surplus and entered into sublease negotiations with other airlines, including Continental, New York Air (which re-entered the CLE market in January 1986 to IAD), Midway and People Express, none of which signed the master lease for facilities prior to deregulation.
By the end of 1986, United had relinquished its number one spot to USAir, with traffic falling by over 19% as a result of its partial exodus from CLE. United also pulled its regional Vice President from Cleveland. The airline cut another six flights and was down to only 13 departures by the third quarter of 1988, citing unprofitable flights, an aircraft shortage, and its continuing shift of focus to its IAD hub. It also laid off 73 ground staff and closed its Cleveland pilot base on October 1, 1988, affecting 110 crew members. Its operations group moved from its regional operations center, and its hangar space became available (eventually acquired by Continental and still used by United today). By the end of 1988, United still had 1,000 employees, including 232 flight attendants and 437 reservation agents, based in Cleveland. It finally agreed to sublease seven gates to Continental and consider additional subleases for some of its remaining six gates.
As United diminished, USAir and Continental continued to duke it out for dominance in the Cleveland market. Ultimately, Continental would win and start establishing a min-hub at CLE, knocking USAir’s secondary hub operation out of Cleveland, and growing to be a full-fledged hub carrier at the airport, even offering service to a number of international destinations. In 2010, Continental merged with United, and Cleveland Hopkins again became a United hub, albeit only until June 2014, when UA shut down its CLE hub for the second time.
The growth of Continental's CLE hub will be the subject of a future article. Stay tuned!
(Paul J. Soprano is an aviation enthusiast and amateur airport historian based in Cleveland, Ohio, USA)