What the JetBlue purchase of Spirit Airlines might mean for Cleveland Hopkins airport

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A top official at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport said he doesn’t believe the planned sale of Spirit Airlines to JetBlue will result in any flight reductions in the short-term, and may lead to expanded service in the future.

“The demand is there,” said John Hogan, deputy chief of marketing and air service development for Cleveland Hopkins. “I don’t believe we’ll be left behind.”

The news Thursday that JetBlue had an agreement to buy Spirit Airlines sent shockwaves through the industry, with analysts and insiders speculating about the effects of a combined carrier on everything from airfares to flight routes to aircraft colors.

Both carriers operate in Cleveland, although Spirit’s presence is much larger.

JetBlue this summer is flying to just one destination from Hopkins – Boston – while Spirit is flying to nine.

Using year-to-data in 2022, the combined carrier would be the fifth largest airline at Cleveland Hopkins, with 14% of the market — behind United, American, Frontier and Delta.

In recent years, Spirit has grown substantially at Cleveland Hopkins, as Northeast Ohio travelers responded well to the airline’s low fares and leisure-focused destinations. Among the carrier’s top destinations from Cleveland: Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Both carriers entered the Cleveland market shortly after United Airlines closed its hub at Hopkins in 2014.

While both airlines are known for their low fares, the two carriers are dissimilar in many ways. JetBlue prides itself on its superior customer service, with generous legroom, complimentary snacks and beverages, plus in-flight entertainment.

Spirit, meanwhile, typically offers lower fares and a much more bare-bones product, with tight seats, no in-flight entertainment and extra fees for carry-on bags and seat assignments.

It’s unclear exactly how the sale will affect the combined brand – what will happen to all of Spirit’s bright-yellow planes? – but JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes has said that the company would retain JetBlue’s name and company headquarters in New York.

Hogan acknowledged that Cleveland airport officials had hoped for more aggressive growth from JetBlue in past years. The carrier started with service to Boston and Fort Lauderdale in 2015, briefly added Fort Myers in late 2020, but is only flying to Boston this summer.

“JetBlue has been quite conservative in the Cleveland market,” said Hogan, despite airport officials pushing for more, including nonstop service to New York City, where JetBlue is headquartered.

Despite JetBlue’s approach in Cleveland, Hogan thinks it would be a mistake for the newly combined JetBlue-Spirit to take a similar no-growth stance in Cleveland.

“Spirit has done very well in Cleveland,” he said.

Indeed, last year, Spirit more than doubled its physical footprint at Cleveland Hopkins, adding a second gate and extra office space, anticipating a sizable service expansion at the facility. That expansion didn’t happen, largely because of staffing and other issues affecting the airline industry as travel demand surged in 2022.

In fact, Spirit has reduced summer service in Cleveland, dropping flights to Cancun and New Orleans in June.

Hogan said he expects both of those flights to return in the fall, and he’s hoping for more. “We definitely could fill up more seats if there was more capacity,” said Hogan. “The issue that the airline industry is facing is capacity.”

Load factors – that is, the percentage of seats on a plane that are occupied – have been approaching 90% on flights to and from Cleveland in recent months, he said. “And the only way I see it going is up,” said Hogan.

He added: “There will be Spirit management in the new company. I think they’ll push to continue that expansion in Cleveland.”

What about Akron-Canton?

The acquisition of Spirit will also affect the Akron-Canton Airport. Spirit started flying from Akron-Canton in 2016, with several routes that overlapped with Cleveland’s flights.

Earlier this year, Spirit announced that it was suspending service at Akron-Canton, starting in June, a result of staffing challenges. Nonstop flights to Orlando and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, were affected.

Spirit recently added the CAK-to-Orlando flight back into its schedule, starting in November.

Lisa Dalpiaz, vice president of marketing and air service development for the Akron-Canton Airport, said it was too soon to tell how the sale would affect Akron-Canton.

She noted that the planned sale still needed the approval of Spirit stockholders and the Department of Justice, a process that could take up to two years.

Hogan, meanwhile, said the newly combined JetBlue-Spirit would be wise to keep investing in Northeast Ohio. “The passengers are out there. Once things settle down as far as staffing, I believe growth will continue, regardless of carrier. The demand is there.”

Read more:

Spirit Airlines temporarily pulling out of Akron-Canton Airport, adding and subtracting flights from Cleveland Hopkins

JetBlue and Frontier face off for Spirit: What a merger might mean for Cleveland Hopkins airport travelers

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