CLEVELAND, Ohio – Did it seem like all of your neighbors traveled to Ireland this year?
A lot of them did.
In June, during Aer Lingus’ first full month of operation at Cleveland Hopkins, more than 5,900 people took the new flight between Cleveland and Dublin – an auspicious beginning for a route that many in the community desperately hope will succeed.
During that first month, 95% of all seats between Cleveland and Dublin were occupied – a percentage equivalent to more established Aer Lingus routes from Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia.
The questions now, as the route enters the slower winter months: Will Northeast Ohio travelers continue to embrace the route? Is it here for the long haul?
Forgive Northeast Ohio travelers their skepticism. The last nonstop flight between Cleveland and Europe, in 2018, lasted just six months. Before that, in 2008, a new route between Cleveland and Paris was axed after just four months.
“I do feel like this is different,” said long-time Cleveland-area travel agent Mark Hollywood, vice president of global operations for the Travel Connection in Aurora. “The convenience factor is the overarching benefit that people love.”
Hollywood, who has used the new flight twice, said the route makes traveling to Europe almost as easy as flying to the West Coast.
Among its many benefits, he said: Dublin is one of a handful of international airports that participates in the U.S. Preclearance program, which allows travelers to clear customs in Dublin before boarding their flight home, avoiding Cleveland’s notoriously clogged customs area.
“When they walk off the plane in Cleveland, it’s like they’re walking off a domestic flight,” said Hollywood, who was born in Ireland and is a dual U.S.-Irish citizen. “It’s a game-changer.”
But the route will need more than Irish expats and Clevelanders with a pub crawl on their travel bucket list to succeed. It will need a steady mix of repeat vacationers and business travelers, heading to Dublin and beyond, as well as travelers coming from Europe to Cleveland.
Mark Owens, vice president of marketing and communications at Team NEO, said the ongoing community effort to make the Aer Lingus flight successful feels different from previous years.
“Maybe we’ve learned from those previous flights how to make this one more successful,” he said.
The flight has this going for it that previous ones did not: a built-in safety net. Aer Lingus was attracted to Cleveland in part because of a nearly $12 million minimum revenue guarantee offered by JobsOhio, the private economic development arm of the state. The guarantee, which also includes contributions from the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, kicks in if the route doesn’t meet certain revenue benchmarks.
Reid Moody, chief strategy and planning officer of Aer Lingus, said it was too early to know whether the carrier would need to dip into the fund.
“We have had a very strong summer, but the revenue support is based on the full year and it’s too early to assess winter,” said Moody in an email interview.
Moody said the carrier was very pleased with the new route.
Through October, he said 85% of seats have been filled, “and we are very encouraged by the positive response.”
He added, “Winter months are traditionally less busy for transatlantic travel, but we are encouraged by advance bookings on the Cleveland route.”
Next month, the airline will take a previously announced six-week pause in service, starting Jan. 8, for aircraft maintenance. On Monday, Feb. 19, the airline will resume the flight, which runs four times per week, on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Cleveland officials were initially hoping that Aer Lingus would add additional days to the route in 2024, but that doesn’t appear likely, said Bryant Francis, Cleveland’s director of port control.
Francis met with Aer Lingus officials at an industry conference in October, and the airline said it was pleased with its performance at Hopkins.
“It was nothing but positive news,” said Francis. “They were speaking about opportunities to increase capacity, but it doesn’t appear that will happen in 2024 – more due to fleet availability than performance of the route.”
Brett Snyder, who follows the airline industry at crankyflier.com, said full planes aren’t the only way – or even the best way — to judge the success of a route. Fares matter as much as filled seats, he said.
“Revenue is going to be really important,” he said. “It’s a combination of the two.”
Airlines, however, almost never reveal how much money individual routes are making. “The greatest indicator of success is if it’s still operating next year,” he said. “If it’s not doing well enough and it doesn’t come back that’s how you’ll know for sure.”
Meanwhile, community leaders continue to work to make sure the route is around for years to come.
Emily Lauer, vice president of public relations and communications for Destination Cleveland, recently traveled to Dublin and London to drum up support for the flight on the other side of the pond.
She met with tour operators, travel agents and travel writers in an effort to increase awareness about Cleveland as a destination. The goal, she said, is to get the city included on tour itineraries and in travel brochures.
She made her pitch alongside other representatives from the Great Lakes region, as European travelers typically visit more than one destination per trip.
Earlier this year, Destination Cleveland hosted several tour operators and travel writers on familiarization trips to Cleveland. Additional trips are planned in 2024, she said.
“Seeing is believing when it comes to Cleveland,” she said.
Meanwhile, Owens, with Team NEO, the regional economic development organization, has been working to establish and strengthen business ties to Ireland.
Eaton Corp., with world headquarters in Dublin and U.S. headquarters in Cleveland, has been a frequent user of the new flight, according to Owens, who also serves as Irish honorary consul in Ohio.
Area colleges, too, are sending students to Europe on the new flight.
Case Western Reserve University’s business school, for example, is sending about 50 students to Ireland in March.
Michael Goldberg, associate professor of design and innovation at Case’s Weatherhead School of Management, will lead the group to Dublin and Galway to work with and learn from small-business owners in Ireland, among other projects. He said it probably wouldn’t have happened without the new flight.
“The flight and what it represents in terms of connectivity was one of the driving factors that led us to choose Ireland,” he said.
Not everyone, however, is so enthusiastic about the new service.
Hollywood has heard complaints from some travelers about the fact that Aer Lingus doesn’t participate in the TSA Precheck program, which gives prescreened travelers access to shorter security lines at Cleveland Hopkins and other airports.
Aer Lingus reportedly has applied to join the program, although a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration declined to confirm the application. (“We don’t disclose any information about airlines joining the PreCheck program until they are approved partners,” she said.)
Frequent traveler Dan Eleff, of Beachwood, said he wishes Cleveland had landed transatlantic service from British Airways instead. The London-based carrier recently launched service from Cincinnati and resumed flights from Pittsburgh, both to London Heathrow International Airport.
Aer Lingus doesn’t offer as nearly as many connections as British Airways, said Eleff, who operates the Cleveland-based travel website Dansdeals.com. Cleveland’s flights are also less frequent than those offered by British Airways, which will fly to Cincinnati five times per week next summer, and six times per week to Pittsburgh.
In addition, British Airways uses the wide-body Boeing 787 Dreamliner on its Pittsburgh and Cincinnati routes, while Aer Lingus flies a single-aisle Airbus A321neo from Cleveland. “Perhaps CLE should be looking into British Airways instead of Aer Lingus service in the future?” asked Eleff.
Despite those concerns, Eleff said he is booked on his first Aer Lingus flight to Cleveland later this month.
Editor’s note: Were you among the thousands of Greater Clevelanders who traveled to Ireland this year on new Aer Lingus service between Dublin and Cleveland Hopkins? No doubt you took some fabulous photos. We’re planning a photo essay of readers’ Irish experiences for publication later this month. If you have a favorite photo you’d like to share, please email it to Travel editor Susan Glaser at email@example.com, along with a short description of where it was taken (no more than 100 words). Please include your full name and hometown and when you traveled to Ireland. Deadline to participate is Sunday, December 10.