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Jet bridges at Cleveland Hopkins Airport need to be replaced

With passenger traffic rebounding and other positive signs of recovery, Cleveland's airport still faces challenges as it looks toward building a new terminal.

CLEVELAND — With air travel soaring, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is on pace to see nearly ten million passengers come through the terminal this year. That’s near pre-pandemic levels.

But headwinds remain on and off the airfield.

Airport chief Robert Kennedy, kept on by new mayor Justin Bibb, is leaving as the city pushes forward with a $2 billion, 20-year terminal reconstruction plan he helped craft.

Also, years of ignoring maintenance and upgrades to critical airport equipment are now adding to financial pressure just as the airport finds its financial footing.

3News has learned the airport needs to replace many of its jet bridges - the accordion-like walkways that connect the terminal to planes. Some are a decade or more past their recommended lifecycle.

“We've been putting money in it,”  Kennedy told 3News recently. “Capital money that we get from the carriers are being used to rehab them until we can replace them, [Jet bridges] are way past their useful life.”

A 2018 report obtained by 3News examined five jet bridges previously owned by American Airlines. The carrier unloaded the bridges to the airport for $1, Kennedy said. The report found the jet bridges were in bad shape and posed safety concerns because of “improper use and a lack of maintenance.”

The report documented corrosion, damaged cables, leaks, worn wheels, loose handrails and missing safety features. (You can read the report below.)

“Well, let me start out by saying they will never be in service if they're unsafe,” Kennedy said.  “Safety --  if we're not safe, we're not an airport. So, we always make sure that they're safe. We have spent a lot of money repairing them. We took this over five years ago.”

The airport owns 25 jet bridges. Kennedy says many of them need upgrades. When jet bridges are out of service, they can lead to flight delays. Kennedy says some breakdowns can be traced to mishandling by airline employees or their contractors.  

The airport has installed cameras to watch the jet bridges to help prove the point.

“If that airline damages it, we send them a bill or tell them they can fix it,” Kennedy said.

A new jet bridge and installation cost more than $1 million, Kennedy said.

The airport is proposing to spend around $3 million a year to maintain or replace them. The money comes from fees airlines pay to use the airport.

But those fees – which were once among the highest in the industry – are also needed to help pay for other airport operations. In addition, before the airport can build a new terminal, the carriers will have to agree to additional fees to pay for it.

“The beautiful thing about the bridges is once we redo our terminal, we can rehang them on the new terminal,” he said. “So, it's not something that will be a lost cost.”

Kennedy said good airport management during his tenure and increasing passenger traffic have allowed the airport to cut landing fees for airlines for the first time in decades. He said the fees carriers pay now are among the lowest in the industry. He said this will make it easier for airlines to agree to new spending for a terminal reconstruction plan.

“We have a facility that was designed, built and opened when the propellered aircraft was the dominant aircraft in the air,” he said. So, our world of aviation has changed a lot, and our airport needs to do it as well to serve the future.”

Kennedy said he believes negotiating with airlines about the terminal master plan can begin earlier than the city hoped.

“I think we're going to get it done by next spring,” he said. “So, that allows us to go out to the bonding market at the end of next year or beginning of the following year. What we need on that first phase is $780,000,000 and once we get that, then we can start designs. We could see a shovel in the ground in 2025 or 2026.”

The story was updated to reflect the latest landing fees comparison.

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