by Barbara Peterson | March 01, 2016

When an expected 50,000 delegates descend on Cleveland this July for the Republican National Convention, they will experience an airlift situation that has drastically changed in recent years. Once you could jet nonstop to the city from places like London or San Diego, but carrier consolidation ended all that. United Airlines alone had served 58 destinations nonstop from its Ohio hub; now that's down to 15. If loyal customers of one of the country's largest airlines want to get to Cleveland for the GOP confab, many will need to change planes at least once in places like Newark or Chicago.

On the outbound side, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport has lost more than a third of its flight departures since United Airlines merged in 2010 with Continental and eliminated the latter's hub-and-spoke operation out of the facility.

There's an inevitable Washington angle here, too: It was the federal government that approved the United-Continental union and a slew of other mergers that transformed the airline landscape. A group of travel-related associations earlier this year banded together to lobby Congress to create a commission to study airline competition, or the lack thereof, particularly in cities such as Cleveland; Memphis, Tenn.; and St. Louis, all of which lost their hub status following a big merger and have major convention centers and hotels dependent on the airlines.

In addition, the Department of Justice is investigating whether the county's four biggest airlines colluded to slash service at some of these midsize gateways in order to drive up prices. Those carriers -- American, Delta, Southwest and United -- deny they've done anything illegal.

"Airlift is absolutely critical to a city's ability to attract meetings and conventions," notes Erik Hansen, senior director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association. "What we have seen after this wave of airline consolidation is that it can be difficult to reach some of the hardest-hit areas from different parts of the country."

But cities that have lost out as a result of the airlines' merger mania aren't necessarily content with playing the role of Exhibit A in any legislative or legal battles. Instead, they're fighting back, courting new carriers to come in to pick up the slack. And they're also touting the benefits of loosening the stranglehold that a dominant airline can exert over a city.

Cities vs. shrinking airlift
"We don't get as many direct flights as we used to," says Mike Burns, senior vice president of convention services and sales for Destination Cleveland, the city's tourism bureau. "But new low-fare airlines are coming in. Fares have dropped significantly, and that's a huge advantage. You now have options that you didn't have a few years ago."  

At first glance, the numbers do show a dramatic decline in the city's airline service, from 110,000 annual departures at Hopkins 10 years ago to around 49,000 today. But Burns points out that the number of passengers has not dropped by such a dramatic percentage. The reason: Most of the newcomers are flying full-size jets like Boeing 737s, which carry more people than the smaller commuter planes that United and its regional partners operated on many routes. And upstarts like Spirit and Frontier are adding more frequencies. In fact, Cleveland's passenger count showed a slight uptick in 2015 from the year before, to nearly 8 million (although that's a drop from the 10.5 million who flew in 2006).   

"We've gone from having one flight a day to Las Vegas, under United, to four flights a day now," Burns says. "We still have plenty of robust service compared with cities our size," he adds, noting that Cleveland, in part due to its convention center, is drawing major meetings like Content Marketing World and the American Bus Association.

When air service does becomes a sticking point, Burns says, it's usually because the meeting involves a large number of international delegates who generally prefer to fly to a city with a first-tier airport, such as San Francisco and Chicago, which draw lots of nonstop flights from abroad, thus avoiding having to make a connection.

To counter this issue, Burns talks up the ease of ground connections once passengers land in Cleveland. "If we look at the time it takes to go from the airport baggage carousel to checking into your hotel room, we come out quite favorably," he says, compared to other cities notorious for their local traffic gridlock, such as New York City and Los Angeles.

U.S. Travel's Hansen agrees. "Local transportation is just as important as intercity connections," he says, citing a study the association did a few years ago showing that cities with rapid transit from airports to downtown are "much more competitive for meetings."