“Dirt” photos make Cleveland news: WKYC covers the closed Concourse D.

I don’t always single out those times when American Dirt gets outside media coverage, but this one was germane enough that I figured it was worth it. Cleveland-area news and NBC affiliate WKYC contacted me a few weeks ago about an article I wrote back in early 2013, featuring the quiet halls of Concourse D of Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport (CLE).  WKYC wanted to use some American Dirt photography, and they featured my images of the Concourse in both an article and a story on the 11pm newscast on November 14.  The link to both is available here.

Built in the late 1990s when the airport and its hub, Continental Airlines, were flourishing, Concourse D enjoyed moderately heavy use for less than a decade. At the time of its construction, Continental comprised about two-thirds of flights out of CLE. But amidst the great upheaval of the airline industry after 9/11, mergers forced numerous airlines to downgrade their hubs in Midwestern second-tier cities, thereby placing more emphasis on the mother of them, O’Hare in Chicago (ORD). In 2010, Continental Airlines merged with United, almost immediately. The news afforded a mixed blessing to Clevelanders. While the merger almost immediately relegated CLE to a lower stratum among Midwestern airports, it did allow a diversity of airlines to enter the previously cornered market, including some budget ones, which ultimately helped lower costs at an airport that formerly suffered the reputation of among the highest average fares in the country.

The photos below—among several that WKYC used for its article—reveal Concourse D in its final stages of life.cle-terminal-d-01-001 cle-terminal-d-03-001On New Years Day of 2013, when I took these photos, the concourse was still open, albeit barely used. After United and Continental Airlines completed their merger, the new United “dehubbed” CLE. And, by June of 2014, it shuttered Concourse D completely, even though United’s lease continues until 2027, to the tune of $1.1M a month.

The WKYC article focuses on the aftermath of this closure (that it refers to as “Terminal D”), which boasts a new dimension of irony, because the City of Cleveland is still making money off of the shuttered facility. That’s right: the city government owns and manages CLE, a condition only characteristic of a handful of airports. And United continued its lease on the concourse despite not actually using it, because the airline determined that it’s better to pay the cost of an unused building—thereby shutting out the competition from using the space—rather than to staff it and put the infrastructure to use.

CLE Concourse D before closureThis mild local controversy is hardly unique to Cleveland: other second-tier cities have experienced similar contractions as their airports lose their hubs, with similar “phantom leases” serving to block out the physical presence of potential competitors. According to this article, CLE now only offers direct flights to about fifteen other cities—a paucity compared to its role as a major airport in the 1990s. WKYC turned this predicament into both an article and a video, using photos from my 2013 blog post. On the video, the American Dirt pics of Concourse D right before closure appear at about the 0:40 point.

Concourse D now embodies a huge piece of floundering real estate that the City has no real incentive to revitalize, since, after all, it is still receiving considerable revenue from the lease. Perhaps a local knows better than I do if the City has fully mothballed the facility, or if it is still devoting at least a bit of money to preclude it from falling into disrepair.  But the airport as a whole is not operating at the same scale that it was in 2000; needless to say, the spinoff employment from taxicabs, restaurants, hotels and car rentals has retracted as well.

If the authorities at CLE what to see how other cities have approached this situation, they don’t need to travel outside of their home state of Ohio. Just a couple hundred miles to the southeast, Cincinnati Northern/Kentucky International Airport (CVG) experienced a similar fate to its Concourse C, which opened in 1994 and closed in 2008.  The current status?  Delta airlines (owner of the facility) broke its land lease with CVG.  Now the shuttered concourse faces demolition next year, barely twenty years after construction.  At this pace, regional jet terminals might have a shorter life span than the average chinchilla…or (a more apt analogy) the typical NFL stadium.

15 thoughts on ““Dirt” photos make Cleveland news: WKYC covers the closed Concourse D.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Would be interesting to know if they liquidated all that inventory before they closed down the concourse. My guess is it’s just sitting there, collecting dust…

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      There’s a big wall with the word “Cleveland” on it now, blocking any access to the concourse. Might as well use the place for paintball.

      Reply
  1. Brian Reid

    Don’t forget, Cleveland also has on of the most famous railroad stations in the USA. Likely under-utilized. I enjoyed the article, as always, Eric.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I didn’t think of that. Meanwhile, Columbus, just 100 miles to the southwest, is the largest city in the country to have demolished its historic railroad station. These days, virtually all railroad stations in this country are underutilized.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      The airport is stuck between a rock and a hard place, I think! It’s a major metro but also very close to other big ones that are trying to step up to the plate, in terms of the prominence of their airports.

      Reply
    2. Sonya

      I just don’t get it though. I think of Tucson’s airport, which is really pleasant and doesn’t seem to have any problems. Cleveland’s a lot bigger though.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        My guess is the authorities for CLE (which is the City of Cleveland) would hear Continental Airlines say “Jump!” and would respond “How high?” CLE was a major hub for Continental until the merger with United, which meant it would largely do the airline’s bidding, including finance a whole new regional jet terminal in the 1990s, when those things seemed like the way of the future. 9/11 changed everything. Before then, we still had close to dozen major carriers–even TWA was still functional. Now, after all those mergers, there simply aren’t enough different airlines to justify all the space, service and personnel in the second-tier airports. I don’t know much about TUS, but I’d imagine it wasn’t a major player for any airline, so it wasn’t overbuilt. But, much like almost all the malls these offer the same three department stores (Penney’s, Sears, Macy’s), the airports have the same airlines, so there’s no strategic advantage to offering all those redundant flights out of CLE when they can simply shore up the offerings at places like ORD and DTW. Thus, CLE only flies to about 15 cities these days–not a lot for such a big airport. And one whole concourse (Concourse D) proved completely unnecessary.

        Reply
  2. Chris Barnett

    In contrast, the newer (post 9-11) airport terminal at IND doesn’t have the “many concourse/terminal” design because of the need for centralizing the TSA clearance function. It’s one big building with one big central food court. They do have duplicate TSA facilities, but in slow times they can close one because the two halves of the terminal building are connected by a secure walkway. If a carrier goes out of business or merges away, their check in counters and gates and bag claims can readily be leased to one of the discount airlines.

    (Maybe IND is the only new midsize-city terminal post 9-11?)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I think you’re right on all counts, Chris. Even though IND was in the conception stages during 9/11, it probably underwent an almost complete re-design in light of heightened security considerations. And I did notice the flexibility for managing the TSA facilities and consolidating operations as needed. It’s pretty adaptable.

      That said, in these times of airline dearth, even with the efficient use of space, it still feels like there’s a lot more square footage than the airport needs, based on enplanements.

      Reply
      1. Chris Barnett

        Agreed, though (as my econ professors used to say) capital is lumpy. I assume the airport authority was looking at growth charts and trying to have enough capacity for 20 or 30 years after opening. I also assume they didn’t figure on a whole down decade upon opening the building at the depths of the worst recession in 27 years, with far fewer enplanements than just a few years before.

        IND enplanements in 2015 were still below 2005 levels; some of that probably relates to the de-emphasis by Southwest, but IND is down only 8% while CLE (and PGH) are down 29% and 25% respectively.

        Looking at the stats for the 50 largest US airports, several traditional hubs are still down also (ORD, MSP, DTW, SLC, STL, MCI, CVG, PHL). Cincinnati and Memphis are not even on the list since the Delta/NWA merger. Other top 50 airports are up, some considerably over the decade (MDW, DAL, DFW, RDU, BNA, DCA, ATL, JFK, LAX, DEN, CLT, MIA). It’s a mixed bag and it doesn’t really correlate well to “which big airlines survived”, though the former hubs of merged-away airlines have uniformly suffered.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          You’re not the only one who has conveyed this long-term optimism about airports to me (Urbanophile is another). Interesting that there has lately been some insecurity in the business community about IND not having any regular flights to London, while airports that have declined more (PGH comes to mind) do have them. A very flimsy correlation, I know, but one that seems unrelated to the actual amount of customer traffic at the respective airports.

          Reply
          1. Chris Barnett

            The direct international flights are probably more correlated to the number of corporate headquarters of worldwide operators.

            For example, PGH has historically been HQ for more large corporations than IND, which would tend to generate more international travel if the corporations are multinationals. (The HQ difference also may account for the larger number and size of towers downtown PGH vs. IND.)

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