Lagging air service at CVG may mean more trouble than just Chiquita’s departure

In 1987, the same year that Chiquita announced its move to Cincinnati from New York City, Delta Airlines began its first non-stop flights to Europe from what was then called the Greater Cincinnati Airport. 18 years later, the airport’s “Hub Era”, as the period is described on the airport’s own website, drew to a close just as a third north-south runway was completed. Since that $250 million runway opened in 2005, total annual passengers at CVG have fallen from 22.8 million to 7.9 million.

In 1998, at the height of the Delta hub’s growth, the Cincinnati Metropolitan Growth Alliance hired Michael Gallis, a Charlotte-based planning consultant, to deliver a report on the state of Cincinnati [Download the Gallis Report] and how it must position itself for the 21st century. Given this week’s news regarding Chiquita, this passage from the report is especially prophetic:

“The Airport cannot be taken for granted. There is strong competition for airline activity and hub status among metro regions. Therefore, it is essential to continue involvement with the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to assure its continuing status as a major global hub.”

Unlike in Europe, where government-owned airlines don’t shift their hub operations, American cities are at the mercy of the finances of those airlines that serve them. Chiquita is moving to Charlotte primarily because of the relative health of US Airways versus Delta — the City of Cincinnati has no say in the affairs of Delta Airlines or even the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport.

Charlotte will add Chiquita to its corporate roster in late 2012.

So is Cincinnati finished as a viable location for international business because of Delta’s 2006 bankruptcy? Since second-tier cities like Cincinnati and Charlotte are at the mercy of their airport’s hub operator, won’t Chiquita find itself in a similar situation when US Airways inevitably suffers similar financial problems?

The great frustration is that all of this could have been avoided if at the cusp of the jet age a major airport had been built in Butler County so as to draw from the combined 3-plus million population of Cincinnati and Dayton. Such an airport could have attracted all of the development that now occupies Boone County, Kentucky, and the larger combined population would have ensured multiple major carriers.

Is a continued reliance on CVG a strategy that dooms Cincinnati’s potential? There is a temptation, given the billions invested in that facility over the past 60 years, to dismiss any notion of constructing a new airport in Ohio. But with no futuristic transportation mode on the horizon, it appears that jet travel will continue in a form similar to what exists now for decades to come.

A new airport in Butler County, served by I-75 and a new rail transit line linking downtown Cincinnati and downtown Dayton, is the sort of investment that area business leaders and the State of Ohio should be pushing to ensure southwest Ohio’s competitiveness.

  • John

    Or perhaps a tram/streetcar which could tie-into a further reaching light-rail system, linking the downtown core to the surrounding suburbs, and the existing underutilized airport, and subsequently the world beyond… rather than constructing a whole new airport.

  • Question

    Interesting article, but I take issue with its very premise.

    You say: “Chiquita is moving to Charlotte primarily because of the relative health of US Airways versus Delta…”

    And yet you offer no information to back that statement. Nor do you mention the $22 million in incentives that Charlotte offered Chiquita to lure it away. Could you please provide proof that the airport/airline is Chiquita’s PRIMARY reason for moving to Charlotte?

    I don’t mean to pick a fight. I realize that a lot of people have this opinion. I’m just looking for proof.

  • I have to strongly disagree that a new airport might help Cincinnati. If it could be built for free, I’d say “Sure, why not?”. But in reality, this stuff costs billions of dollars.

    Weigh an airport, which will be outdated as soon as petroleum gets a bit more expensive, against the equivalent in transit expenditures, which will only continue to become more valuable.

    I would much rather we invested in long term solutions to our very pressing transportation needs. Should we build more highways? No. Should we build another airport? No! We need fuel efficient and attractive public ground transportation to local and national destinations. Trains, buses, bicycles, streetcars. There are better ways to get around that are a better bet for the future, and a better investment right now.

  • Another factor to consider is that airlines are cutting shorter flights altogether. For example, Southwest is cutting their Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh routes next year, and the only carrier left flying this route (US Airways) has announced that they’re raising the fare from $118 to $698. This trend will continue as fuel prices rise and airlines want to eliminate the smaller, less fuel-efficient regional jets.

    Airports should position themselves for this change by pushing for rail connections to nearby cities. Imagine if CVG had high-speed rail connections to Dayton, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Lexington. Residents of those cities could get to CVG in under an hour (not bad, considering many Cincinnatians drive an hour to fly out of Dayton), and the airport would be able to support more frequent flights to more destinations. Essentially this would make CVG into a super-regional airport, similar to the Cin-Day airport Jake is suggesting.

  • Matt Jacob

    In the past, it might have been the wisest thing to place the regional airport between the two cites instead of out of the way from the rest of the population in Boone County. But I don’t think it’s the solution today. The sunk costs are high at both CVG and DAY and the new airport’s cost today would not be jusified by any stretch of the imagination, especially when you take into account the growth happening in the area. Do you really think it’s wise to kill the growth there by adding a bunch of planes over the new houses? Just not going to happen.

    Where to start in fixing CVG?

    A more regional board and controlling interest to start. The regional aiport is run by a county board! Talk about prone to cronyism (cough, Delta, cough). We are uniquely situated between 3 states and should pull 3 times the funding. Kasich used some excuse that he’d like to help CVG but it’s located in KY. Why can’t we get an entity like OKI to run it and use our position as an asset instaead of a detriment?

    At this point CVG is taking the right steps to consolidate passenger flights into one terminal, get rid of the other two to save money and allow for space of modern future terminals if needed, and diversify their revenue by expanding their freight flights on their remaining runways with excess capacity. This will ensure that CVG is financially positioned strong to take advantage of new passenger flights as the economy rebounds. Not much more we can do now but prepare.

    My pie-in-the-sky idea is connecting DAY and CVG via truly high-speed rail, so both airports can grow as regional air hubs(move Detriot’s and Cleveland’s), making SW Ohio at the center of a dual-hub system. The connection would be quick enough that a passenger could fly into one airport, ride the train to the other, and fly out if needed. can you say “hub synergy”?

  • Aaron Watkins

    John Kasich does not care about Cincinnati.

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    CVG is in the wrong location, period. The situation didn’t become a problem until airline deregulation in the late 1970’s gave rise to hubs in second-tier cities like Cincinnati. The arrival of Chiquita and the general health of Cincinnati companies in the 1980s masked the problem.

    The three huge mistakes of the WWII generation were dismantling the streetcar system, leaving the subway unfinished, and allowing the region’s airport to grow like a weed in Boone County, Kentucky. The world is passing us by while our generation works to undo the mistakes of our parents and grandparents.

    Also, considering the new runway cost $250 million in 2005, it’s likely that a new airport with one or two runways could be built for approximately the same cost as the Brent Spence Bridge project — which itself wouldn’t be happening if the airport wasn’t in lonely Boone County, Kentucky.

  • One interesting aspect of this is the rise of Charter jets and smaller airports such as Lunken. For what a first class ticket cost on Delta you can fly charter.
    You have to imagine the rise of Lunken and the decline in CVG go hand in hand.

  • I have to disagree with you, Jake, and agree with Travis and Matt that we should improve CVG as is.

    I agree that CVG isn’t in the best location, mainly because it’s not in Ohio. People don’t think of N.Ky as Cincinnati–heck any more Dayton is considered more a part of Cincinnati than Florence and N.Ky, which helps explain (partially) why everyone flies out of Dayton. For those in West Chester, Mason, Hamilton, etc. it actually may be faster to drive to Dayton than CVG.

    But, on top of the sunk costs at CVG everyone has mentioned, as well as the lack of undesired land in Butler County, you have to consider economies of scale and minimizing competition. Are we really going to just MOVE CVG? Or are you proposing a second Cincinnati airport?

    I like Matt’s idea of using a double-hub system to help Cincinnati AND Dayton, via local and regional light rail. We can solve the problem locally with airport, I-71, and I-75 rail lines. But also connecting Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, Indianapolis, etc. by regional rail to make up for the disappearing short air routes Travis is referring to should be a high-priority goal.

    On top of that, we NEED to find a way to change how CVG is run, we need to put public money into growing the airport, and we need to get Delta’s grasp off monopolizing the local air space. Why, exactly, have we allowed Delta to turn the airport into the poor shape it’s in?

    And to answer “Question”: read the news. Chiquita has often been quoted stating that the poor state of CVG was a reason they are moving. Charlotte’s airport made it a contender; the $22m package made it a winner.

  • Though on the flip side, if we were to simply expand Butler County’s airport ( with funding from the state of Ohio, as well as Cincinnati, Dayton, and everywhere in between, we could create a true super-regional Cincinnati-Dayton airport.

    The questions are, though, is there enough space to do it, will the public support it, and can/will our governments find a way to fund it? And I think the answer to all 3 of those questions is no.

  • Obviously Ohio messed up big time by allowing Cincinnati’s international airport to locate in northern Kentucky. This, and the opening of the Brent Spence Bridge to public traffic, enabled the disgusting sprawl of Nky and has cost the region mightly ever since in terms of river crossings and necessary infrastructure improvements.

    The airport should have been built at the Blue Ash site when the chance was there. Had leaders knew that Cincinnati and Dayton would grow together the way they are, then Butler County would have been the most logical, with rail connections to the urban cores of both Cincinnati and Dayton. Such a move probably would have placed the Cincinnati-Dayton metroplex in a similar status as Dallas-Ft. Worth.

    What should probably happen now is high-speed rail links from CVG to Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, and maybe Columbus and Indianapolis. This would allow for airports in those cities to be mere connectors, and make CVG the international hub for the mega region.

  • With all of this said, CVG screwed up by investing $250M into a new runway, when it probably should have invested money in its facilities instead. This is the path Detroit took and it has paid off much better for them than Cincinnati’s investment in Delta’s eyes.

    Only now are CVG leaders investing in terminal improvements and upgrades to passenger checkin/out operations. The massive upgrades in CVG’s security operations, in my opinion, make CVG more of an irritant than a pleasure because now you have overzealous TSA agents.

  • Matt Jacob

    Zach don’t forget about “Cincinnati West” in Harrison and another one in Middletown. Realistically all these others should aspire to be Lunken before CVG.

    Honestly the industrial uses popping up around CVG lately since DHL moved in are bringing a whole other type of economic benefit for our region. While they won’t replace the higher paying office jobs that business travelers brought, they aren’t anything to sneeze at either. I predict CVG’s next wave of growth will be in the form of freight traffic and as a central distribution point for retailers like Amazon. With the addition of the new road and more land ready for development close to the runways, CVG is positioning itself as a totally different type of airport for our region’s needs.

    CVG is overbuilt for passenger flights and freight customers are and will take advantage of that excess capacity in the future. Passenger traffic will never reach the same level unless a spoke system of rail like Travis advocated is put into place. (Ideally with a high-speed line between CVG and DAY)

  • Brett

    Delta cut back flights at CVG not because of financial problems. They merged with Northwest Airlines and moved operations to some of the better Northwest hubs. Detroit and Minneapolis have much better facilities. How can you write this article without even mentioning the merger with Northwest?

  • Van

    Is there any chance or any consideration for rail connections to CVG?

  • Schmiez

    just a few thoughts;

    – People drive to Dayton because its cheaper. Same reason I do (from downtown no less). If CVG flights came down in cost (dont know if its a Delta or a CVG thing) then folks would fly out of CVG. Heck, some drive to L’ville because it can be cheaper.

    – Lunken regionals are nice, but no threat to CVG. There are what, 16 seats on those flights? And the round trip to New Jersey (not newark, outside of newark) is like $500+

    – The tri-state issue causes funding problems. Detroit/MSP/Memphis get every dollar back they put in. Ohio splits that dollar. But there needs to be some thinking to help it (i like Matt’s thoughts about focusing on freight hub)

    – Somehow, someway, CVG lost some of its hub connections to Memphis. That airport is a dump compared to terminal 3. Dayton is nicer than memphis. Fix that. Detroit and MSP are so far out of reach now, they are not the competition.

    – CVG/DAY partnership could work. But it would have to be rail-based and direct (or limited) stops in between. Newark/LGA/JFK have buses between them, but its pretty miserable unless its 3 in the morning. the L’ville/IND thing could work too. Think about if theres fog in CVG and you get grounded. But you could hop a train and get to DAY or IND to catch a flight 2 hours later.

  • Schmiez

    Also, Charlotte is giving quite a bit to get 370 jobs into that city. I think they are afraid one of the bank centers in Charlotte may never recover.

    $60,000 in tax incentives per employee.

    If Cincy does get Nielsen, they win in a landslide.

  • Aaron Watkins

    It would be really great to see some of the companies that exist outside of city limits to re-locate downtown.

  • Jim Uber

    I have always thought of NKY as a counterweight to Butler and Warren exurban growth, placing Cincinnati more squarely as a true regional economic-geographic center. No matter how friction-less communication becomes, or how fast and convenient we design our mass transit systems, doesn’t centeredness still matter?

    Surely the location of the airport in NKY has helped the growth of NKY, both to sprawl southward but also to help the growth of the near-center communities along the riverfront. I realize that this growth is far from all good, but I’m also not sure I prefer the alternative reality.

    Where would we actually be if the airport had been located in Butler county? Imagine West Chester, which even now has it’s own “downtown”, with a nearby airport to further spur its growth over the past decades.

    Sorry, but it’s not nearly so clear to me. I’m not a fan of CIN-DAY, which has it’s center in, well, Middleton. Adding fuel to that area through a single huge economic force like an airport, could distort both Cincinnati and Dayton by further dissolving their economic-geographic centers.

    By the way, does anyone really like Dallas-Fort Worth?

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    I agree that in a metro region that gave itself entirely over to the car, the airport did act to keep downtown the focus of the metro in a region. The death of downtown St. Louis stands testament to what happens when a downtown finds itself on the edge of its metro region — it’s unable to compete with its midtown areas, which are much closer to the center of that metro.

    But the couter-counter argument is that I’m looking at this to some extent from the perspective of the state of Ohio, and by allowing the airport to slip away (or more accurately not acting when derregulation sparked an explosion in air travel) Hamilton, Middletown, and to some extent Dayton were all left to rot.

    My theory as to why the state didn’t act to build an aiport in Butler (or Warren) counties was interfearance from lawmakers in Columbus and Cleveland, who didn’t want southwest Ohio to become the state’s dominant region.

    As for passenger rail links at CVG — it will never happen as long as we have private airlines in the United States. The airlines will never give an inch to rail — 200mph French-type trains will cut into their business directly and by erroding their political clout. 100 years ago part of the argument for public transportation was that it would allow free transfers. In France, public ownership of Air France and the TGV meant there was no fight against building a TGV station at Charles DeGaul Airport. As a result, there is virtually no domestic air travel between French cities linked by the TGV, and someone traveling to Lyon from the United States need only go down an escalator at Charles DeGaul and board the train. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati people routinely drive to Dayton for the cheaper rate, only to fly through CVG on their way to Florida. That’s “freedom”.

  • Mark

    Yea I agree Nate. I definitely agree with Jake’s point that the airport is in a pitiful location, but I don’t know that an investment with a price tag anywhere near the Brent Spence project is a worthwhile or feasible investment.

    Why not spend that money on investing in additional infrastructure for example Cincinnati’s share of the 3C train? Just out of curiosity I did a little math/research. The world’s fastest bullet train averages a speed of 220 mph. The line that travels at those speeds is 126 miles long and had a price tag of roughly $4.4 billion. Dayton airport (also not the greatest airport, but close in proximity and considerably cheaper) is 65.4 miles from Union Terminal. The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport is 14.4 miles from Union Terminal (if you follow the highway, which I elected to do for simplicity sake). At an average speed of 220 mph (which, would likely go down for smaller distances) an express train could reach the Dayton airport in 18 minutes and CVG in 4 minutes. Given the $4.4 billion price tag for 126 miles I calculated an average cost per mile (I understand that the cost per mile would go down as the mileage increased, but without additional information regarding the project this is the best calculation I can do in 10 minutes). Given that average cost per mile a train from CVG through Union Terminal to the Dayton airport would cost $2.79 billion, which would be on scale with the Brent Spence Bridge estimate. Granted this model doesn’t even account for the additional distance and time to include a likely stop or pass through a downtown Dayton train station.

    I just wanted to take a rough look at some numbers in curiosity because I agree with Jake that CVG is not fulfilling the needs of Cincinnati, but I don’t think scrapping that airport and investing in another one is the best alternative. Businesses are paying to travel less and less as telecommunication becomes more common. High speed rail for domestic travel will hopefully and likely become common in the US within the next few decades. Cincinnati needs to find ways to get more carriers at CVG (I understand they don’t manage the airport, but given the fact that Cincinnati supplies most of the airports demand it’s hard to imagine they don’t have influence), provide effective public transit to and from CVG, and potentially look for alternatives such as more effective transit to Dayton airport, expanding Lunken, etc.

  • Marshal

    “What should probably happen now is high-speed rail links from CVG to Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, and maybe Columbus and Indianapolis. This would allow for airports in those cities to be mere connectors, and make CVG the international hub for the mega region.”

    This strikes me as the most reasonable scenario given the future of oil. I wonder, though, what would make CVG the better hub, physically, than these other cities’ airports? I don’t know much about airports.

  • Joe

    Perhaps CVG should continue the transformation to a freight distribution hub, it is ideally situated geographically to be a major break or bulk point for major distributors of high value/low weight goods such as mail. However if we went this route the region would need to develop a new airport most likely off of I-75 somewhere in Warren County. I don’t think we want to funnel our demand to surrounding cities, that would mean the death of Cincinnati as a major corporate center as corporate headquarters would have more reasons to relocate to Columbus shifting the urban hierarchy in Ohio further against Cincinnati.

    If we want to improve CVG we need to break Delta’s monopoly and try to bring in a number of other smaller carriers including low-cost carriers. The increased competition would drive down costs further increasing demand thus getting rid of some of the distortions that have caused Cincinnatian’s to travel to Dayton or Columbus for flights.

  • Matthew Hall

    Airports are just not as important in 2011 as many are suggesting. There are many other factors affecting economic growth. There does seem to be an imbalance between demand and supply at CVG caused by delta’s monopolization. That can be solved fairly simply, if not so easily, by getting other airlines. Connecting CVG to the region is another issue, but these hard times seem to be pushing and pulling different interests into doing much of this. We can “pull” the development of the area south as easily as we can “push” the airport to butler or warren counties. The former would produce a more balanced metro and make better use of our existing assets. More delta non-flights are the key. CVG should do whatever it takes to get more. From Price Hill I hear the distinctive rumble of the freight jets taking of for europe, asia, and south america daily. This business could be the basis for a sophisticated business in high-end logistics in specialty manufactured goods for the region.

  • Brian Derico

    I wonder if we might be able to address our airport problems and our rail problems by advocating for a consolidation of the Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton airports halfway between Columbus and Cincinnati on I-71. An airport serving these three metro areas would be a more viable hub for international flights, and with true high speed rail connecting Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton such an airport would be viably close to all three metro communities.

  • chuck

    I think all this is more a sign of structural change in air travel going on than about Chiquita or CVG. Fuel prices and other factors have changed the air travel landscape.

    The hugeness of modern airports has made them painful. Long term parking is an abomination. The super jumbos remind me of the Titanic and perhaps the Hindenburg.

    Perhaps we’ll see more small airports expanding up and smaller planes finding more favor. Favorite airports I’ve flown? Dayton and Westchester NY. Nice and small. Also Reagan in DC. That one is right by the subway – wonderful. Of course it’s for congress, not everyone gets one of those.

    Rail lines to connect airports to metro sites are a great thing. More of that would work. CVG just seems to have hit all the wrong turning points.

  • Swaincs

    Everyone has a valid opinion, but these are all opinions. I fly CVG every week for 15 years. I am not any happier than anyone else, I do want to comment on a couple of points though. While the former Northwest Hub of Detroit is a really good airport, MSP is a horrible airport to get through and make connections at. The same is true for Memphis. I am not sure who designed Memphis and thought that the fingered approach was a good idea. Neither of those airports hold a candle to CVG. Granted the whole shuttle to C was a disaster, but does Delta really need DTW & MSP? Seems a waste. CVG is better positioned to hub east coast. I have had my fights with Delta through the years. I even jumped ship to go to NW years ago, well we know that backfired on me. Unfortunately, as a frequent traveler, status is everything and my Diamond status with Delta means quite a bit in an environment of cancelations, delays and horrendous security lines. It is self serving, but even if we could get another carrier to come in, it is a big deal to switch loyalty. I have done it once but am unlikely to do it again. Delta needs to fix its operations. Pushing everyone through Atlanta is a disaster. I have missed so many connections simply because air traffic control has to put flights on hold because of traffic back ups. That is not ATC’s problem, it is Delta pushing too many flights through ATL. This with an airline that considers 20 minutes a legal, bookable connection in Atlanta. Try getting from A5 to E20 when you land and the flight is already boarding. CVG is a much better option to help disburse the traffic. It may be in KY but it has been for so many years it really doesn’t matter. My only other comment is that I have found CVG’s TSA one of the more agreeable agents in all the cities I have visited. They have an ugly job but they do it in a friendly, non-confrontational way. I do fail to understand the need tho throw so much money into rebuilding the security area at CVG though. Again., this is opinion only.