SWANTON, Ohio — Twenty years ago, the Eugene F. Kranz Toledo Express Airport here in western Lucas County was abuzz with commuter traffic. The planes flying in and out were bigger, the fares were more competitive, and there was a multitude of options to choose from at this Midwest port city, located on the western tip of Lake Erie in the Buckeye State.
The airport began in 1955 as a civic-corporate effort to address the needs of the area. What was then called the Toledo Municipal Airport (now the Toledo Executive Airport) was perceived as inadequate to serve the booming post-World War II industrial city. Two years later, the Official Airline Guide showed there were 13 daily flights moving people in and out of the city. Twenty years later, nine major airlines were running several daily nonstop flights.
Things peaked here in 1997, as they did across the country in other medium-sized cities. In the time since, places like Toledo, Ohio, started their decline from being directly connected to the rest of the country to becoming dangerously overlooked as passengers’ options went from local access to an hour’s drive to Detroit to conduct their travel.
At the time, airline experts said that rising fuel costs made a lot of routes in places like Toledo unprofitable; aviation consultant Robert Mann said at the time that the first goal for airlines was “to get rid of the losers.”
Last week, American Airlines announced it was ending daily passenger service from the Eugene F. Kranz Toledo Express Airport after Labor Day. It wasn’t just here, either. Dubuque, Iowa, and Islip and Ithaca, New York, have also lost passenger services from their regional airports.
In short, as Detroit newsman Gary Miles phrased so eloquently on social media: “Flyover country just got more flown over.”
American Airlines is not the bad guy in this story; the cuts are in response to a regional pilot shortage affecting the entire industry, which could last for a long time.
But as the very phrase “get rid of the losers” implies, many influential people in elite institutions just shrug off or ignore the economic and emotional effects that this kind of thing has on a small-to-medium-sized city. It is much like when they shrugged when manufacturing, opportunity and stability left such cities between 30 and 50 years ago.
When an airport stops serving your city, it denies the region’s industries (and travelers) the use of the aviation network, the common denominator that determines successful business and tourism across the country and the globe.
And it creates yet another small death to places that are trying to recover from a series of other small deaths they have endured over the years due to automation and destructive trade deals and the loss of Fortune 500 companies keeping their headquarters in their hometown; there were seven located here in Toledo until the late ’70s.
My personal favorite line in reaction to a story like this is, “Why don’t they just move?” My favorite personal reaction to that is, “Why don’t you come here and ask people who live here that question?” And since you can’t fly here and ask them, you might learn a few things along the back roads that you’ll probably have to take from New York or Washington, D.C.
More than 50 years ago, few blinked outside of the towns and mid-sized cities that the railroads began to bypass. Transportation had made towns alongside the rail lines’ trading centers, where farmers sold cattle, businessmen could trade and receive their goods, and local lawyers and doctors could continue to call their small towns home because of their access to travel.
It also meant tourism and new commerce — money coming into the town meant a town continued to flourish. But when they started to leave, the towns became ghosts of what they once were, and the elites just shrugged.
In the same way that the railroad was a major factor in a region’s economic viability, so are smaller cities’ airports. This is a story that few in our elite class will care about because they cannot see how it affects them, just as they could not see how a factory closing down so many years ago would affect them. But it did, it does, and it will.
The disdainful term “flyover country” implies a world of bitter Bible-and-gun clingers, deplorables and ultra-MAGAs. It implies that the lives and industries of half the U.S. population are ignorable — that is, until the people, places and problems ignored begin to affect national politics. That is about the time the elites in New York and Washington start asking again what happened when another election result blows their closed minds.
They think it’s because they are narrow-minded, uneducated or bigoted. The voters here and other places across the country know it is because they ignored once again the impact of things like an airline having to cut them off. And what was the root cause of the airline pilot shortage to begin with?