CHICAGO — Two weeks after it hit Cleveland with a credit downgrade, Fitch Ratings has cut the rating on $835 million of bonds issued for Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to A-minus from A.
Analysts warn that the airport faces challenges from declining enplanements, a relatively high debt burden, and an escalating debt-service amortization schedule.
Its dependence on United Continental cramps its fiscal flexibility, according to Fitch.
The outlook was revised to stable from negative at the lower rating.
The airport is owned by Cleveland. It is the chief commercial airport in northeast Ohio and enjoys a strong base of demand, limited competition, and strong liquidity.
But Hopkins has suffered from three straight years of declining enplanements. The airport recorded 4.7 million enplanements in 2010, down 17% from 5.7 million in 2007, according to Fitch.
Moody’s Investors Service cut the airport to Baa1 from A3 last November, also warning of pressure from falling enplanement and airline revenue.
Standard & Poor’s assigns it an A-minus.
Adding to the pressure is Hopkins’ dependence on United Continental, which generated 69% of enplanements as of last year.
The 2010 merger between United Airlines and Continental increased the airport’s exposure to strategy or scheduling changes.
In the near term, the facility’s position is somewhat protected due to a settlement between United, Continental, and the Ohio attorney general that requires the new airline for the first two years to maintain an average daily departure rate that equals at least 90% of Continental and United’s average daily departures in 2009.
The agreement’s commitment requirements soften after three years and if the new carrier experiences profitability losses. The airline can pay $20 million to opt out of the agreement.
Cleveland Hopkins has $835 million of outstanding bonds, of which 19.5% are in a variable-rate mode — some are hedged with interest-rate swaps — and backed by letters of credit.
Fitch said the airport’s management is considering restructuring some debt to eliminate its variable-rate exposure.
On the bright side, Hopkins enjoys unrestricted reserves of $151 million, or 826 days' cash on hand, and its capital plans total a modest $157 million over the next five years, according to analysts.
Fitch on April 13 downgraded the city of Cleveland to A-plus from AA-minus, citing depleted reserves and other fiscal challenges.