Thursday, January 22, 2009

CVG wooing flights

Local airport officials Wednesday stepped up a lobbying campaign with hub tenant Delta Air Lines, as well as low-cost airline AirTran, in an attempt to lure flights here.

The move comes after both carriers raised the possibility of moving some operations out of Atlanta because of potential higher costs there.

Kenton County Airport Board Chairman Lawson Walker II sent letters to the top executives of both airlines outlining the positive attributes of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which was Delta's second-largest hub, behind Atlanta, before its merger with Northwest Airlines last fall.

"There is a big chance that this is all saber-rattling by the airlines in Atlanta, but we're not going to not take the opportunity to remind Delta that we have a lot of room and to remind AirTran that we are still here," Walker said in an interview Wednesday. "And we still feel that we've got a strong story to tell."

CVG's flight and passenger traffic are down by about half in the past three years. The airport's Terminal 1 and Concourse C have been closed in the past two years.

Still, the airport's four runways make it one of the highest-capacity airfields in the Midwest - one of only three U.S. airports that can handle three takeoffs/landings at once.

But not everyone in the community welcomed the news that the local operation could grow again.

This weekend, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune circulated an e-mail to regional leaders from the county's aviation consultant, which said a larger local Delta presence could lead to more noise over western Hamilton County.

A larger Delta presence also could solidify the fare structure that has made CVG consistently the most expensive airport in the nation, consultant Sandy Fidell wrote.

Said Portune: "The regional leadership should caucus on how this airport should grow to serve the interests of the region and not continue down a path of only serving the interests of Delta."

Delta officials raised the stakes in its negotiations over a new lease at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport last weekend, saying they could move flights to other hubs. Delta says Atlanta's proposal could double rates to about $10 a passenger.

In a letter to Atlanta officials, Delta vice president of corporate real estate John Boatright warned that Cincinnati, along with former Northwest hubs Detroit and Memphis, could serve more than two-thirds of Atlanta's traffic.

AirTran officials did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment, but have also publicly raised concerns over the possibility of higher lease fees. The Orlando-based airline operates its major hub in Atlanta; it served Cincinnati for two years in the mid-1990s.

Cincinnati charges airlines $8.64 a passenger, including landing fees, rents, leases and utilities - up from $6.22 in 2008.

Airport officials say the local fees are competitive with other airports and are not the reason behind Delta's high fares here.

"Certainly, Delta didn't leave here in the first place because of our fee structure, and we still feel that we are cheaper than a lot of other airports, especially after all the cost cutting we've done," Walker said.

Overall, airport fees account for less than 5 percent of the overall costs incurred by an airline moving a single passenger, according to Deborah McElroy, Airports Council International executive vice president for policy and public affairs. The Washington-based trade group did a 2007 survey that found the average air-passenger cost at major hub airports was $9.08.

Dayton International Airport also could see some growth. AirTran runs several daily flights in Dayton, which also served as a hub for Piedmont Airlines in the late 1980s and continued as a smaller hub for several years after US Airways bought Piedmont in 1989.

It has seven spare gates for any new business.

Dayton has become a popular departure point for Cincinnati-area travelers looking for lower fares, although specific numbers are not available.

"We already consider ourselves a focus city for AirTran, and they certainly know what we have to offer and know where we are," Dayton Airport Director Iftikar Ahmad said.