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.