The crowded parking lots at Erie-Ottawa International Airport tell the story: Traffic at the airport has swelled.
Ice fishing has given the airport an immediate influx of visitors, but over the long term, airport manager Stan Gebhardt thinks the new “international” status at his formerly regional airport will help deliver an important boost in traffic.
After two mild winters in a row, the return of bitter cold has helped revive ice fishing at South Bass Island and Kelleys Island. Ice fishermen are flying out of the airport to take advantage of the opportunity, Gebhardt said.
“This weekend was probably the biggest weekend the airport has seen in a decade,” Gebhardt said. “It was just a zoo. Thelobby was full of people”
The ice fishermen usually are there at 7 a.m., he said.
“Friday morning, we had 18 to 20 ice fishermen waiting” he said.
Last year, the airport had landings from more than 5,000 planes, Gebhardt said. He’s looking for more this year, aided by flights from Griffing Air Service, which recently moved to the airport, by Island Taxi and by the expansion into international flights from Canada.
The airport’s venture into international flights was aided by the Border Patrol’s decision to build a new regional complex on Ohio 53, across from the airport.
In the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attack in 2001, pilots from Canada who plan to fly to the U.S. are required to file a flight plan in advance. When a plane from Canada comes in, customs agents come to the airport to meet the flight, Gebhardt said.
He said that since Nov. 9, when the airport had its first international flight, about 40 or 50 international flights have come through.
He said he expects such flights to grow as word gets out. For pilots on their way to Florida or other destinations, stopping at Erie-Ottawa for fuel is a little bit like being able to run to the corner store when all you need is a quart of milk, Gebhardt said. It’s much easier than refueling in Cleveland, he said.
The first international flight on Nov. 9 carried two county commissioners, one each from Erie and Ottawa counties, and an airport board member to Canada’s Pelee Island and back.
Erie County commissioner Tom Ferrell rode on the flight, which he said was a bit bumpy.
“It was a pretty windy day that day. I went to church when I got back” he said.
Ferrell said he sees the airport as an economic development tool for the whole region, not just Erie and Ottawa counties.
“It does give us a window of opportunity to expand our horizons” he said.
Gebhardt said he expects visitors to fly in this summer from Canada to visit attractions such as Cedar Point and Kalahari.
Larry Fletcher, director of Ottawa County’s visitor bureau, said being able to fly in visitors from Canada is helpful.
“It will be a much easier experience for them than having to fly into Cleveland or fly into Toledo,” he said. “Their process getting through customs will be much quicker here in Port Clinton. I definitely see it as a plus. It could lead to some additional visitation”
The airport has had to expand its parking to cope with the additional traffic.
It began with 175-200 spaces and now has more than 300 spaces. It opened a new parking lot and also opened up spaces by the hangars. Gebhardt said that at this week’s airport board meeting, he’ll call for adding another 50 to 60 spaces.