USAir’s Cleveland Hub 1987-92
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
In a previous article on the history of United Airlines at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, we saw how United, the historic number one air carrier at CLE, greatly expanded its hub operation in the 1970s, only to begin drawing it down in favor or Washington-Dulles (IAD) and Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) beginning in the early 1980s.
Cleveland’s air service suffered greatly as a result of this flight reduction by its once dominant air carrier. Traffic reached its peak in 1979, when Hopkins handled 7.46 million passengers. Three short years later traffic plummeted to 5.17 million. However, slowly but surely, other airlines began to fill the gaps left when United pulled up stakes. In addition, the airport began concerted marketing efforts to attract new service and also continued almost constant modernization efforts, including the expansion of the airport’s parallel backup runway (5L/23R) to 7,095 feet in 1988. These efforts seemed to payoff, as both USAir and Continental Airlines began beefing up their service at CLE in the wake of United’s decline.
While most people are well aware that Continental eventually built up Cleveland as one of its three main domestic hubs prior to its eventual merger with United Airlines in 2010, very few people seem to remember the important interim role that USAir filled at CLE starting in the late 1980s, when it even operated a “secondary hub” at the airport for several years. This operation capitalized both on the gaps in airline service at CLE left by United, but also helped to relieve the airline’s capacity constraints at its main hub in Pittsburgh prior to the opening of that airport’s massive new midfield terminal complex in October 1992. But first, let’s take a quick look at the history of USAir and its predecessor airlines at CLE.
A Brief History of USAir at CLE
USAir had a long history of serving Cleveland, with Allegheny Airlines, its previous name (begun in 1949 as All American Airways), having started flights at CLE in June 1953, with service to Erie, Pennsylvania (ERI) and points east, including Newark (EWR) and Philadelphia (PHL). Cleveland was the westernmost city in the airline’s route network at that time. Allegheny (AL) was one of the “local service carriers” whose role was to bring needed air service to small and medium cities not served by the major “trunk” airlines. In those early days, AL marketed itself as “The Airline of the Executives.”
Another local service airline also served the city at this time, Lake Central Airlines (LC), based in Indianapolis (founded in 1949 and originally named Turner Airlines after the famed aviator Roscoe Turner), with service from Cleveland to Columbus, via Mansfield and Marion, Ohio (and eventually Chicago-Midway via Lima, Ohio, another 3 stops at small cities in Indiana)! It had started service with two daily DC-3 flights to Mansfield in April 1953, for $8.20 one way (equivalent to $79.49 in 2021). In 1965, LC began new nonstop service to Akron (CAK), Toledo (TOL) and Detroit (DTW). At one time, it was reported that the airline was studying the use of Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL) in Cleveland, but this never occurred. Eventually, Lake Central would operate Convair 580 turboprop aircraft at CLE.
In June 1960, another local service carrier, Mohawk Airlines (MO), started service at CLE with daily flights to various destinations in New York State, including Elmira, Jamestown, and Olean, NY, using 28-passenger DC-3s and 50-passenger Convair 440s. In those days of milk-run flights, one route flew from Cleveland to Elmira, Syracuse, Utica and on to Idlewild Airport in New York City (now JFK). As the airline continued to grow, a new ticket counter at the north end of the terminal was opened by MO in July 1963; previously, the airline was handled by Northwest Orient Airlines at Hopkins.
By July 1965, Mohawk had entered the jet-set with 69-passenger British-built BAC-111 fan jets entering service between Cleveland and Syracuse via Elmira, NY. One of the new jets was christened, “Ohio,” by Eleanor Locher, wife of Cleveland’s Mayor Ralph S. Locher, on its inaugural service. Mohawk would go on to add service to Boston via Buffalo and Hartford by April 1970, to compete with American Airlines’ four daily flights.
Mohawk Airlines introduced an innovative model of inflight catering and décor that it dubbed “Variety Flights” in 1968. Stewardesses dressed in various themed costumes, including mini-mod dresses, sequined “gay 90s” outfits, brightly colored lounging pajamas, and a pizza chef costume, to serve customers morning snacks, pizza, beer and pretzels, or champagne. It offered New York City bagel and cream cheese flights in the morning, which did not prove very popular, as passengers kept on telling the stewardesses that their donuts were stale! Strudel eventually replaced the bagels.
Allegheny Airlines continued to add destinations to Cleveland in the 1960s and early 1970s. It also acquired competitors, Lake Central, in a deal approved in March 1968, and Mohawk, in April 1972, to create a “Very Large Regional” airline, a new designation, instead of the former “local service” name. Destinations added to the CLE schedule included, Wilkes-Barre-Scranton and Pittsburgh (its major hub), in Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Jamestown, Syracuse, Elmira, Binghamton, and Albany in New York, as well as Detroit, Michigan, and Dayton, and Columbus, Ohio. By March 1971, Allegheny operated 23 daily flights, including seven Allegheny Commuter flights to Mansfield, from its home on the North Concourse at CLE.
According to Cleveland Plain Dealer (PD) columnist, Tom Green, Allegheny had a Cleveland travel poster in the works that was due out around June 1977. The airline had such posters for many cities in its route network, including Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Baltimore, Louisville and even Harrisburg, PA. However, I could find no evidence that such poster was ever issued by Allegheny, and as far as I can tell, only Capital Airlines ever published a Cleveland travel poster. If a reader has evidence to the contrary, please let me know!
Allegheny Airlines renamed itself USAir on October 30, 1979. According to aviation historian, R.E.G. Davies, “This ambitious title epitomized a new age for the Regionals. They spread their wings into areas previously undreamed of.” (Airlines of the United States since 1949, p. 420). By that time, the airline served Phoenix (with ongoing service to Tucson), Arizona, Nashville, Tennessee, as well as Toronto, Ontario, its first international destination from Cleveland, started in July 1976, followed by Montreal in October 1981.
USAir’s Hub Operation at CLE
By the end of 1986, United had relinquished its number one spot at CLE to USAir. The airline’s 1986 annual report boasted of doubling service at Cleveland as well as its acquisition of Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) providing feed to flights to the east and midwest. And in February 1987, USAir’s Chairman and President, Edwin I. Colodny, announced that Cleveland would become a hub if enough gate space could be obtained.
By March of 1987, the airline had stated snowbird flights to three destinations in Florida, Tampa, West Palm Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale, bringing its daily departures to 44 flights (compared to 22 for UA, 16 for CO, 14 for AA, and 13 for EA). It also added service to the very popular Orlando (MCO) in April 1987, competing with both Eastern and Midway Airlines.
However, US only had four gates on the remodeled and renamed A Concourse, but it intended to sub-lease from United additional gates on the C Concourse. However, UA inked a deal in April 1987, with upstart Continental Airlines to take over seven gates on C that USAir wanted. This freed up gates 7 and 7A (subleased from American) that USAir was able to utilize to support their increased service at CLE.
The airline hoped to eventually operate 80 to 100 flights out of 8 to ten gates in Cleveland (vs. 33 gates at its hub in Pittsburgh). Colodny stated, “We expect it to have some hub characteristics. We’re working on a plan to modify our existing space to accommodate additional gates, plus acquire gates from another carrier.” (PD, 2/21/87). It was hoped that the airline's recent acquisition of California-based PSA ,and its announced merger with Piedmont, could aid a Cleveland expansion, knitting together the various route systems of the much larger USAir.
The 1987 USAir annual report stated that “Cleveland now ranks as USAir’s third largest airport operation,” with a number of new nonstop destinations totaling 21 cities. To support its increased operations, in March 1988, US Air completed at $6.7 million expansion of its ticket counters, baggage space, a new USAir Club, and gate areas on Concourse A, where four additional gates were built, with USAir gates going from four to nine. This project was entirely funded by the airline. US also added nonstop service out west to both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) in May 1988, along with Las Vegas (LAS).
Largely due to USAir’s (and Continental’s) expansion, CLE saw an increase in passengers to a record 7.6 million in 1988, an impressive one million passenger increase over 1987, representing almost 21,000 passengers per day. As the Department of Port Control stated in its 1988 Annual Report, “Hub development at Hopkins has revitalized air service and stimulated growth and competition among Cleveland’s 18 air carriers.” April 1988, also saw the completion of Hopkin’s third air traffic control tower. The 210-foot, $4.9 million tower was built to increase airfield visibility and safety at the airport.
In 1989, USAir focused on the integration of recently acquired Piedmont Airlines and expanding its domestic system’s new hubs as well as building on hub development where strengths already existed, including “continued expansion of US secondary hubs in Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Syracuse” (acquired from Piedmont Airlines which merged with SYR-based Empire Airlines in 1985). By 1990, the airline employed over 300 full-time and 55 part-time employees in Cleveland. It also added two gates at the end of the B Concourse for use by its USAir Express affiliates.
However, USAir’s large presence at Hopkins was to be rather short-lived. As part of a larger corporate restructuring, USAir announced in January 1991, that it would eliminate 20 of its 52 jet flights at CLE. Among factors mentioned in this reduction, were 1) cutbacks in marginally profitable or highly competitive routes, 2) the close proximity of four USAir hubs (PIT, DAY, IND and CLE), and 3) the rise in Continental’s Cleveland hub operations which, by that time, had grown to 87 nonstop flights.
Other cities were also impacted by the overall 4.5% cut in USAir service, including Portland, Oregon (PDX), six cities in California inherited from its merger with PSA, and its Baltimore (BWI) hub which saw a decrease of 25 flights. USAir’s Chairman Colodny blamed mounting losses at USAir on “soft domestic traffic caused by a weak national economy, huge increases in the price of jet fuel and widespread unrealistic fare discounting” (PD, 1/21/91). There were also costs incurred by the withdrawal of 18 Bae-146 aircraft effective May 1991. By this time, the CLE secondary hub had shrunk to 46 daily flights on USAir (34 jets and 12 commuter) serving 12 cities nonstop.
This announcement came on the heels of a banner year for Cleveland Hopkins. A record 8.7 million passengers were served in 1990, a 6.6% increase over the previous year, and daily departures increased to 305 per day, including 93 commuter flights. This was despite the recession after the first Persian Gulf War.
The impact of USAir’s cuts was not the same as in the early 1980s when United began to draw down its Cleveland hub. There were no glaring gaps in service in terms of nonstop destinations, largely due to Continental’s growing operation at Hopkins. USAir no longer needed CLE, and fortunately, CLE no longer needed USAir.
The growth of Continental at CLE will be the subject of a future article. Stay tuned!
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