Shortly after Southwest Airlines announced last spring that it would be ending its flights from Akron-Canton Airport to Chicago’s Midway Airport, local chamber of commerce and regional economic development leaders met with airport President and Chief Executive Officer Rick McQueen.
They were alarmed that the large low-cost carrier, which had landed the previous year at Akron-Canton, was pulling a flight to a major city.
There was concern that dropping Midway would have an impact, and it did. After setting an all-time record for traffic in 2012, passenger boarding at Akron-Canton dropped 6 percent last year and airport officials are expecting another decline of about 3 percent this year.
The Chicago flight has been named as an important factor.
The airline argued that Chicago was not the destination for most passengers: Travelers were flying instead to other Southwest cities. So the company routed passengers to Denver, and added one more flight to the Mile-High City.
Business leaders knew upfront that adding Southwest and losing Chicago would be a challenge.
Southwest does not participate in online flight aggregations that allow travelers to shop for the most convenient and least expensive flights. They must check Southwest separately. That alone could affect overall airport business.
“It was something we needed to take notice of,” said Denny Saunier, president and chief executive officer of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We didn’t panic, but we knew we had a great airport.”
The men — Saunier; Dan Colantone, president and CEO of the Greater Akron Chamber; and Steve Paquette, president of the Stark Development Board — wanted to see what they collectively could do to ensure that Southwest thrived at the airport.
“In economic development and especially in Northeast Ohio, I can’t think of another greater influence or importance than the airport. Transportation is truly a gateway to access. Having Southwest is an opportunity to maintain and cultivate,” said Saunier.
What resulted is the launch today of the #LUVCAK campaign, which stands for the industry code for Southwest (LUV) and Akron-Canton Airport (CAK).
Chambers of commerce, the development board and visitors and convention bureaus in both Summit and Stark counties are partnering with the airport.
The Canton chamber established a website, www.luvcak.com, to encourage business and leisure travelers to sign up for the airline’s Rapid Rewards frequent flier program. The goal is to sign up 20,000 new Rapid Rewards customers, which will then connect consumers to Southwest specials.
As an enticement, those who sign up through the website will be entered into drawings for one of 60 $100 Southwest vouchers and a grand prize of four round-trip tickets, all from the airline. Five $100 vouchers will be pulled weekly, beginning in mid-February.
The contest, open to persons 18 years of age and older, runs from Feb. 3 through May 2. Persons who already are Rapid Rewards members must enter by mail by sending name, address, date of birth and Rapid Reward Number to Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, Attn: LUVCAK, 222 Market Ave N, Canton, OH 44702.
The goal is to get more business and leisure travelers to buy tickets on Southwest at Akron-Canton Airport, said McQueen.
McQueen, quoting his mentor and predecessor as airport director, the late Fred Krum, said “we want to sell tickets to the airport. We want butts in seats and aluminum on the ramp.”
Southwest airlines is “ecstatic” about the campaign, McQueen said.
After dropping the Chicago flight, Southwest added other flights. On May 11, two more daily flights will be added to New York LaGuardia Airport, where gates are highly coveted, and on June 2, the second daily flight to Denver will start. Additionally, a switchover to Southwest planes — larger planes — from AirTran planes will also take place.
The airline has nonstops to Denver, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa and Ft. Myers, Fla.
Southwest is thankful to the business community for taking the initiative, said Karen Price-Ward, Southwest community affairs and grass-roots regional leader.
“It makes good business sense when business leaders rally together to help support service in an area,” she said.
Mergers and acquisitions generally result in upheaval at airports.
Akron-Canton isn’t the first to see such an initiative.
In Memphis last year, leaders did the same in anticipation of Southwest’s arrival at the Memphis International Airport.
Dexter Muller, interim president of the Greater Memphis Chamber, said the business community wanted Southwest to know in a tangible way that the community supported it. The airport was experiencing a decline in passengers as airlines consolidated, he said.
The Memphis campaign’s goal was 50,000 Rapid Rewards members. Both Muller and Southwest declined to comment on how many signed up, but they both said it was successful.
“The airline said it [the campaign] was one of the more successful they have had when they have come into a new city,” said Muller.
The Akron-Canton campaign is funded by the participating organizations in both in-kind donations and a $25,000 budget.
As part of that, there will be a social media blitz and email blasts. There also will be in-kind donations of advertising space from Gatehouse Media, which owns area publications.
There will be more than 15,000 informational “boarding passes” distributed among businesses and inserted in Southwest ticket jackets to encourage use of Southwest out of the airport.
Airport spokeswoman Kristie Van Auken said the participating organizations will appeal to 100 businesses to participate.
“The message is simple,” said Colantone. “Sign up [for Rapid Rewards]. It’s a call to action for leaders. We’re giving them talking points in letters to share with their employees.”
Colantone announced the LUVCAK campaign during a recent Akron chamber breakfast meeting and received positive feedback and promises to participate.
“This will help preserve low fares on large jets into those places people want to go,” said McQueen.