Friendly skies

Fred Krum sits in his fourth-floor corner office, a self-described “10-year-old playing airport.” Two walls of windows display a breathtaking view of every runway at the Akron-Canton Airport (CAK). Model airplanes taxi along the window sill. Aerial photographs decorate the walls, and every few minutes, there is the deafening sound of success as planes take off and touch down.

Krum has been CAK’s director for almost 23 years, and has worked at the airport for more than 29 years, serving as its first professional accountant, assistant airport manager and airport manager. But it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that he noticed a growing trend — a significant increase in the number of passengers flying through CAK.

That trend began in 1996, when AirTran Airways started its low-fare service at the airport. Last year, CAK surpassed its 2002 record number of passengers by more than 30 percent — going from 894,798 total passengers in 2002 to 1,164,755 total passengers in 2003; and the Boyd Group recently named it the third-fastest growing airport in the United States., forecasting a 55 percent increase in the number of passengers between 2000 and 2008.

CAK is in the third phase of its five-year STAR expansion project, with a $24 million gate concourse expansion and a new Shuffel Road interchange. Phases one and two included longer runways, a new baggage claim wing, additional car parking and a food court with national brands. Krum expects to complete the last phase in April 2006, two months ahead of schedule.

“It’s winning time,” Krum says. “We’re growing faster than we thought, so STAR’s right on target.”

The process

The STAR concept began in 2001, when Krum decided the airport needed to attract more service with its facilities.

“Futures are something we create versus something that just happens,” he says. “That’s what it was: Getting our facilities ready to handle the growth we envisioned for this airport.”

The program, originally expected to cost $50 million, is now estimated at $70 million. Krum says the increase is due not to cost overruns, but to an increase in STAR’s scope: CAK has made the concourses bigger and added more parking than planned.

STAR was financed through $7 million in loans from the state infrastructure bank, grants from the Federal Airport Program and internally generated funds from airport users including AirTran.

Getting financing to pay for this program was easier than Krum anticipated.

“We thought we might have to issue bonds, which is very cumbersome and involves a lot of legalities,” he says. “The state was able to do more for us than we thought, and with the surge in growth, we were generating more revenue than we anticipated.”

And, perhaps, his longtime leadership at the airport added credibility to his financing request.

“The airport has a long history of stability that preceded me, so I really don’t want to take credit for it, but I think I’m certainly part of that,” he says. “This has been a wonderfully directed entity since the 1940s, and I’m pleased to help continue that.”

The pros and the cons

Managing this kind of growth isn’t easy, and Krum and his staff have overcome numerous hurdles. The first was the difficulty of building around existing structures and runways, as opposed to starting at a clean site. The second was the impact of Ohio weather on construction.

“Look at the weather we’ve had — last summer’s rain, last winter and this winter … We had to wait days when things were frozen and snow-covered,” he says. ” … Usually, each one of these phases was waiting on another phase, so when one thing gets slowed down, it throws everything else off track. We just had to work really hard on a daily basis to constantly reschedule and reshuffle things.”

The third hurdle was the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which occurred three months after STAR was announced. As a result of the terrorist attacks, the expansion project suddenly required new security measures.

“People said, ‘Are you going to stop?’ and we said, ‘No, we’re talking about the future here, and we’re going to work our way past the events of Sept. 11,'” Krum says. “If we were just starting STAR today, we’d be in trouble. We just kept working through the temporary setbacks.”

The airport is expected to attract 1.3 million passengers in 2004, and the STAR program was designed to accommodate 1.6 million, so there’s still some breathing room — but not much. Krum says although there isn’t an official STAR II yet, preliminary studies have begun for another expansion project.

“The neat thing is that STAR was designed with expandability in mind, so we don’t have to go, ‘Oh my God, what do we do now?’ We formulated STAR that it could grow into a facility that could handle 5 million passengers,” he says.

STAR included two new parking lots, adding 650 spots, and a third lot is being added this summer, to create 1,100 parking spaces total. The next project will most likely include additional gate expansion and a parking deck with 1,000 additional parking spaces, and studies will determine the location and cost.

If it looks feasible, a design will be chosen, and Krum expects to complete the additional expansion in 2007.

The progress

CAK has undergone physical change,s but it’s also had an image makeover. Its logo has been updated; more money has gone into advertising and its technical name, the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, has been shortened for branding purposes to the Akron-Canton Airport.

“The word ‘regional’ in some contexts means bigger, but in the airport world, it seems to mean smaller. We determined about six years ago that we could not survive as being Stark County and Southern Summit County’s airport. We had to be an airport for the Northeastern Ohio region,” he says.

Krum’s first move was to brand CAK as the region’s low-fare alternative. Last year, the airport began promoting itself throughout Northeast Ohio by advertising AirTran’s low rates on Cleveland television stations. The promotion tied neatly into AirTran’s introduction of Ohio’s only low-fare flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Last month, CAK began running a new television campaign, which features three spots with the battered traveler Punch Dummy. The ads were conceived at Derby Brand Advertising in Akron and produced by Backyard Productions in California. Krum says in any given year, the airport spends between $500,000 and $1 million on advertising and branding, with most of the expense going for production costs. Larger airports don’t require such aggressive campaigns because their airlines do it themselves.

CAK provides advertising as part of its relationship with its carriers.

Krum sees CAK’s low fares as promoting regional commerce. Many travelers arriving from LaGuardia used to come to Northeast Ohio for business once a year; now they travel here more often due to the low fares.

“They get hotel rooms and they spend money in the area … More business will be done in those areas that have good low airfares,” he says.

Now cities across the country are realizing the necessity of the low-fare/higher-commerce equation, and Krum says they are paying AirTran to come to their local airports.

“Those communities have recognized if we have to pay $1,200 round-trip to go to every town we want to fly on business, that hurts our economy, because who goes to Wichita to do business on a regular basis when it’s $1,200? Now, if you make that $200 each time, then you’re going to do business in Wichita,” he says.

Focusing on the customer is how Krum balances CAK’s growing number of passengers with retaining that small airport feel. When the airport added bomb detection equipment, the ticket counters were moved so security equipment could be placed behind them, keeping the lobbies clutter-free. Widening the concourses keeps congestion down. And CAK provides parking on site, as well as shuttle service and rental cars.

“I’ve got 10 more people who want to put concessions in here. You have to balance out your concessions with what people want versus what you’re trying to sell them. I don’t want to turn it into a flea market because I want to use that space for seating. We keep adding those types of touches,” he says. “Don’t try to oversell; don’t try to overadvertise and don’t try to make a buck on every square foot that you can.”

CAK currently offers flights with AirTran, Delta Connection, Northwest Airlink, United Express and US Airways Express. Considering the airport’s recent kudos, is Krum planning on adding carriers?

“Why do we need another carrier, when the five that we have can do all the things we want them to do? We are not aggressively pursuing another airline. We are aggressively pursuing new destinations with the carriers we have. I’d rather have five airlines doing well than eight airlines doing not so well,” Krum says.

It’s winning time for CAK, and Krum suspects the airport up north might be feeling the squeeze.

“They need not fear us. We will only expand our market,” he says. ” … We are just beginning to fulfill this airport’s destiny as a second airport for the entire region, and I think it’s going to be good for the entire region.” How to reach: Akron-Canton Airport, Akron – (330) 896-2385 or Canton – (330) 499-4221,