Cincinnati’s Airport Location Failure

In an ever globalizing economic system, it becomes increasingly more important for metropolitan regions to have a strong international airport that not only provides reliable high-quality air service to the residents and businesses of that region. Cincinnati’s robust corporate community has historically helped position the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport as one of the major players in the nation thanks to a large Delta presence.

That presence is nowhere near the same today and Cincinnati’s international airport may soon be positioned to lose its Delta hub status altogether thanks to the recent Delta/Northwest merger that left the Cincinnati with the odd airport out with nearby hubs in Atlanta and Detroit.

Atlanta is Delta’s hometown and has the busiest airport, as measured by enplaned passenger, in the world. Meanwhile Detroit Metro Airport is a large newly renovated facility that was a major hub for Northwest prior to the merger. The new mega-airline no longer has a need for the overlapping hubs and seemingly has its eyes set on giving Cincinnati the treatment Pittsburgh received US Airways reduction from a prominent “hub” to a mere “destination” in 2008.

With Cincinnati’s large and growing business community, a region experiencing regional population growth, and a central location to other large metropolitan markets it would seem like Cincinnati’s international airport should be anything but the odd airport out in this shuffle – especially with recently upgraded facilities, top-of-the-line security, and large capacity. The problem might be that Cincinnati’s international airport is located in Northern Kentucky.

This is not said as a slight to Kentucky, but rather said as a reality that Northern Kentucky represents the southern most reaches of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), and is very distant from the southern reaches of Dayton’s MSA that is poised to be merged with Cincinnati following the 2010 Census creating the Cincinnati-Dayton Metroplex with roughly 3.1 million people.

Imagine this: Instead of having the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on Cincinnati’s south side and the Dayton International Airport on Dayton’s north side, the new metroplex has one mega-regional airport located in the middle of the two population and job centers. The draw would be so great that the airport would attract travelers from Columbus and Indianapolis alike for its profound reach much like the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport view during early stages of construction of the third parallel north/south runway (top left) – image from Landrum & Brown.

A mega-regional international airport located around the Monroe area in Butler County would been a further distance from the center cities of both Cincinnati and Dayton when compared to both cities existing airports, but Cincinnati would not have the difficult and expensive navigation over the Ohio River and Dayton would be able to benefit from an international airport with the pulling power of Cincinnati combined with their own.

The region is currently pouring $2-plus billion into the construction of a new river crossing primarily needed because of the sprawl in Northern Kentucky, and by association, the related industries that locate around airports. This money instead could have been used to construct high-quality rail connections between the population and job centers of Cincinnati and Dayton with the international airport located in northern Butler County. The inevitable metroplex then would have not only had a larger and more effective international airport serving its residents and businesses, but the metroplex would have had passenger rail connecting the two centers with one another.

Had this scenario played out, would we be talking about Detroit’s international airport experiencing reduced service instead? Would we be talking about a $2-plus billion bridge replacement over the Ohio River? Would the northern and southern sprawl outward from Cincinnati been instead consolidated into the northern corridor along I-75 that has been met with Dayton’s southern sprawl? How much economic and population impact would this have represented for the State of Ohio? Would the Cincinnati-Dayton Metroplex be an even greater center for aviation industries than it already is?

The answers to these questions may not be easily identifiable or defined, but it does seem clear that the best location for a large international airport serving the Cincinnati-Dayton Metroplex would have been in the middle of the two population and job centers – not the far southern or northern reaches.

  • Joe

    I had always heard that the airport was built in Kentucky because it was built during a period of Democratic control of Washington. It was built during the FDR era and at the time Ohio was a Republican state (w/ Cincinnati being especially Republucan) and Kentucky a Democratic state. So, the airport was built in Kentucky (which had powerful Democratic Senators), screwing Cincinnati and the Republicans.

    I can't find anything via Google to verify, so I guess it's a folk story. Seems plausable though.

  • Travis Estell

    The unverified folk story I've always heard is that Cincinnati didn't want the noise, traffic, and pollution generated by the airport, so they handed it off to Northern Kentucky instead of expanding the Blue Ash or Lunken airports.

  • The Urbanophile

    I don't think Cincinnati really had much chance to be a sustainable hub, no matter what it did. The only cities that seem to have had a sustainable hub model that are smaller are those that have a geographic advantage in the west – Denver and Salt Lake City. Not only Pittsburgh, but also St. Louis – both bigger metros than Cincinnati – have lost out big time. We'll see how Detroit fares, but Detroit is a huge metro area that is also home to an auto industry that generates significant trip demand locally. (Charlotte has a hub IIRC, but we'll see how it fares).

    I also don't think it is realistic to expect anyone to drive from Indianapolis to Cincinnati (for example) for superior connections. It would be just as easy for them to fly there – or to any other hub. The only reason I've seen anyone drive any material distance for a flight is to save a lot of money.

    Having said that, a north side airport would be geographically more convenient to the population base. However, Cincy's airport now is very convenient to downtown and also offers spectacular skyline views to arriving visitors, so all is not lost.

    The best way for Cincy to gain in air service is to grow its economy.

  • Randy Simes

    I agree that the primary way to gain air service now is by growing Cincinnati's economy, but an airport located between Cincinnati and Dayton would have the pull of a 3.1 million person region with a larger economic base. 3.1 million is larger than both St. Louis and Pittsburgh that you mentioned, and would be third in the Midwest behind Chicago and Detroit respectively.

    Furthermore, by the logic of growing air service by growing a region's economy, it would also seem to work in the inverse. While Detroit boasts a larger metro population, it is also hemorrhaging jobs and quickly shrinking its economy. An airport located where I proposed would make Cincinnati more competitive in terms of population and more attractive in terms of economic conditions.

    One last comment is that people do drive to get superior connections, but yes, price does factor in to that. The ATL example I provided has the reach of Birmingham and Chattanooga – both of which are as far or farther from Atlanta than Indy is from Cincy.

  • The Provost of Cincinnati, Editor-at-Large

    That nobody seems to know why, exactly, the airpot ended up where it did illustrates just how shady the whole decision process must have been. One problem is that with the Delta Hub, NK had some bragging rights that led directly to the cross-state feud. And someone please explain why the bridge and I-75 are being expanded if traffic will not be expanding first because of the airport collapse and second because gasoline is poised to pass $5, further reducing air travel and ending the too-common 30 mile commutes from Florence to West Chester.

  • Randy Simes

    I have heard from several people that the decision for the airport's location in Nky was pure politics.

    While this Nky location makes more sense than the area out by the existing Luken Airport, it certainly does not make more sense than an airport near the I-275/I-71 interchange, or an airport in between Cincinnati and Dayton along I-75 that also has great rail ROW access.

    It's too bad really, because a better location might have spurred smarter growth for our region and created a more significant airport.

  • Living in Gin

    According to a book I have about the history of Northern Kentucky — "Pieces of the Past" by Jim Reis — the primary backers for the Boone County site were Hub Logan, editor of the Kentucky section of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Phil Vondersmith, president of the Green Line Transit Company, and a group called the Covington-Kenton County Industrial Association. They had been secretly lobbying the federal government for a Northern Kentucky airport site while Cincinnati had been studying multiple sites in Ohio to replace flood-prone Lunken Airport.

    Cincinnati ultimately settled on a site east of Milford and had even begun purchasing options on property in the area. The feds apparently ignored Cincinnati for several months about the Milford site, despite repeated letters and phone calls, until one day they responded by asking Cincinnati to investigate one more site — the one in Boone County. The official reasons given for the Boone County site were because it was closer to downtown Cincinnati, it had more suitable topography, it wasn't as prone to dense fog, and had plenty of room for expansion. However, that doesn't rule out the possibility that party affiliation may have had something to do with it. Interestingly, even though the airport is located in Boone County, it's owned and operated by Kenton County because at the time of its construction, Boone County was mostly rural and lacked the financial resources to build the airport.

    That's all water under the bridge, though… While it may be tempting to ponder the "what-if" scenarios that may have played out if the airport had been located elsewhere, I don't think it's realistic to expect a new Cincinnati/Dayton airport to be built anytime soon. And putting aside the whole Kentucky-Ohio feud, the current CVG airport is a well-designed facility that is relatively convenient to downtown Cincinnati. Rather than lamenting the political decisions made 60 years ago, I think it would be more productive to investigate ways to leverage CVG's strengths and attract more flights. Such measures may include:

    - A light rail / rapid transit connection to downtown Covington and Cincinnati. Since most of the right-of-way for such a connection already exists in the form of the expressway system, this should be a no-brainer.

    - Promoting Union Terminal as a regional rail hub for 3C and eventual high-speed service to/from neighboring cities, especially if a convenient light rail / rapid transit link exists between CUT and CVG. (Again, most of the right-of-way needed for such a link already exists.) That way, regional trains from Columbus, Indianapolis, et al could serve as feeders for long-distance air travel from CVG.

    - Getting more airlines at CVG besides Delta. This may include Jet Blue, Southwest, etc. IMO, it was a mistake for the feds to allow the Delta/NWA merger, but what's done is done. As O'Hare and Hartsfield struggle with overcrowding and capacity issues (how many people actually enjoy using either of those two airports?), CVG is ideally suited to market itself as an attractive alternative to both ATL and ORD.

  • Randy Simes

    I agree that what if scenarios are not all that productive. The point of this post was to highlight the fact that these decisions have profound impacts on much more than their direct scope.

    Where we located the airport was major for the reasons outlined already. Not completing the rapid transit system also had a profound impact on how Cincinnati developed physically, socially and economically. We are currently pouring BILLIONS of dollars into highway projects, but we're hardly even acknowledging the fact that passenger rail transit is the wave of the future.

    These current and future decisions will have great impacts on Cincinnati just like the decision about where we located the airport. It's unfortunate that so many of these important decisions are decided through political dealings and ego-driven processes, but in the end it's how things work. We can't change the past, but we certainly can learn from it…and by the sounds of people on Twitter and this comment section, there doesn't seem to be much understanding about Cincinnati's airport location, and how that 60-year-old decision is still greatly impacting us today (for better or worse).

  • John Schneider

    I have always heard that the main reason the former Army Air Force base was expanded to become CVG was because President Truman's Vice President, Alben Barkley, was from Kentucky at the key moment the decision was made.

    Because of the frequent flooding of Lunken Airport — it was known then as "Sunken Lunken" — city officials begain looking for another site. Cincinnati at one time owned a great deal of land around what is now the Blue Ash Airport, such as it is. Barkley's intervention fit nicely with the wishes of Indian Hill residents, many of whom were undoubtedly aware of the coming jet age and who would have been on the approach path from the east to Blue Ash Airport.

    So the city got stuck with all this land well outside of what whas then "developed Cincinnati." Some of it became Raymond Walters College when the city still owned UC. But most of it was sold off for commercial development at fire-sale prices. These developments then became the first real competition to space in downtown Cincinnati, and so Cincinnati kind of sold the competition the noose by which Cincinnati was eventually hanged.

    I've never heard anything about a proposed airport location in Milford and doubt it because highway capacity would have always been limited.

    There is also a rich history of shenanigans in our city during the 1950's relating to the rerouting of I-75 from its originally proposed route far west of downtown. Back then, a phone call to the right person could get airports and highways moved on a dime.

  • krstype

    It's a shame with our 4 runways, the shortest of which is 8000ft, we can't get more traffic into CVG. Delta chose the DTW hub because of the newness of the facility but CVG also has loads to offer. DTW can be counted on to have almost 10 significant ice/snow events per season. CVG usually has 1 or 2. DTW is more prone to traffic management initiatives. CVG hardly ever requires ATC delays to flow traffic into or out of the airport. Even when the DL hub was at it's peak, there were hardly ever programs or ground stops into CVG. The only time we have problems here is when the cross wind reduces the use to landing/taking off only on runway 9/27. Fact is, Cincinnati is growing while Detroit is not. Cincinnati could soon have the local traffic Delta has longed for. Cincinnati can make a large caliber airport work. Unfortunately, you need a legacy carrier to help you with that and our golden ticket has opted for ATL, MEM, DTW, JFK, and MSP as their hubs. NOT CVG.

  • The Urbanophile

    Minneapolis-St. Paul would still be bigger than Cincy-Dayton – and is a true integrated metro region.

    It will be interesting to see what happens to the hubs in MSP and DET.

    I find this discussion interesting. While I'd agree that the center of population is north, the thinking that it somehow represents a regional loss to have a major asset like the airport in Kentucky shows the problem of in-region "zero-sum" thinking.

    When Louisville wanted to expand its airport, several sites were considered. One logical place would have been a greenfield site in southern Indiana, that would have been very close to downtown without adversely affecting anyone. However, the mayor of Louisville insisted that the airport had to remain inside the city limits. (Louisville's city area at the time was smaller than Cincinnati). He expanded the landlocked airport at the price of demolishing thousands of homes and businesses in act of epic destruction that would have made Robert Moses proud.

    This type of approach is one of the big things that hobbles cities. Whatever the merits or lack thereof of the current airport site, the history of politics going into its selection, etc., Cincinnati has to start seeing NKY as a truly integral part of the region and an asset to Cincinnati, not as a rival.

  • Randy Simes

    I couldn't agree with you more about how Nky is now an integral part of the region's economy and social fabric. Nky has been able to leverage the airport to attract major companies to the Cincinnati metro region, and Nky is serving as a powerful player in the state of Kentucky in general. These are both good things for the Cincinnati region, and Nky is as much a part of Cincinnati as West Chester, Mason, Milford or Cleves.

    But much like the Robert Moses power move you described in Louisville, that's seemingly what happened with the location of the airport in Nky. And while the location does offer a few benefits, there are also several downfalls to that location.

    I contend that had the airport been built in between the two merging metropolitan areas we would have experienced more condensed sprawl along a more pronounced transportation corridor. Resulting in more concentrated investments by local, state and federal programs, and creating a totally different regional dynamic than what currently exists…and this does not even go into the airline industry analysis at all.

    This has nothing to do with the airport being located in Kentucky vs. Ohio. It has everything to do with location. That location just happened to be in Kentucky, but a Milford location would have been worse than the current Nky location.

  • matt

    The State of WV had been trying to build a regional airport between Huntington and Charleston for years. It hasn't happened.

    A good bet for CVG would be to lure Air Tran from Dayton. We would then be able to draw more folks from Louisville and Lexington to the airport.

    As for the Brent Spence, it was probably under built to begin with. It was 1986 when they eliminated the emergency lanes due to too many vehicles a day. That combined with heavy trucks pounding on the bridge are the main issue. There was a proposal to build light rail out to the airport. That would help some with the congestion but the weight of the trucks will still be an issue.

  • FTLOD

    This is a very interesting discussion.

    R. William Patterson was mayor of Dayton from 1958 to 1962 and was known for pitching the Cincinnati-Dayton regional airport idea. It's a shame it never took off since Cin-Day is growing together.

    Somewhere west of 75 might be an especially good location.

  • Nathan

    Living in Gin, you read my mind: rail connection to Downtown, regional high-speed rail hub at CUT, and more airline options.

    As for the downtown connection, what would be more appropriate: an extension of the propose streetcar, or an altogether different light rail?

    As for bringin in more airlines to CVG: what steps can be taken?

    In the big picture as far as moving forward on all three fronts, where does CVG and it's supporters stand on these projects? Could their support be obtained to help forward the cause?

  • Nathan

    re: airpot location between Dayton and Cincinnati

    Not to belabor the "what-iffing", but I would have thought that such a location would have encouraged more sprawl and the ill-advised physical "merging" of the metro areas. How might it have prevented it? Are there examples of that?

  • Randy Simes

    Nathan:

    I'm not saying that the location of an airport in between Cincinnati and Dayton would have prevented the growth along that corridor, in fact, I'm saying the exact opposite.

    Growth in and of itself is not bad, how it is manifested is where problems can arise. Growth around major airports is inevitable, and I think that concentrating that growth along a corridor where growth was inevitable would have resulted in more concentrated development that could have been easily adapted to rail transit between Cincinnati and Dayton.

    The growth would have been the same, but instead of having two sprawly regions (one to the south and the north), we would have just had one absorbing that growth. This isn't a guarantee that a better product would have been the result, but it certainly creates the opportunity for a better result.

  • http://www.cahslunken.org Charlie Pyles

    This thread has gone dormant, but I’ll add my 2 cents just the same. With DHL pulling out of Wilmington, it seems to me that Wilmington would be a perfect place to draw from Northern Cincinnati, Southern Columbus and perhaps all of Dayton. All of the suburbs of Cincinnati like Mason, West Chester, Batavia and others would have easy access to ILN.

    I’d like to invite followers of this thread and other readers to visit and support our General Aviation/Airline Museum at Lunken Airport where history of aviation in a 100 mile radius of Cincinnati is being preserved.

  • Gabriel Austen

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