Much has been said and written about the rapid and dramatic decline of air passenger service at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. Much less has been said and written about the tremendous economic impact the loss of air service has had on the entire region.
At its peak, there were 673 daily flights at the airport just of Interstate 275 in northern Kentucky. Today, that number has declined to 170 daily flights, and as a result, one of the terminals at the airport is virtually closed.
But it is the economic impact of the airport’s decline that is most shocking. The Cincinnati Enquirer estimates the cuts have cost some 33,000 jobs and $1 billion in annual economic activity. The estimates come from comparisons of a new regional economic impact study with the statistics in a 2005 version.
Rebuilding the airport’s activity has become a top regional priority, with the airport considered pivotal in attracting and keeping businesses as well as drawing visitors.
“It’s important to acknowledge that the airport has a plan, and that they’re beginning to execute it,” said Ellen van der Horst, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “I think it’s poised to grow.”
Airport officials say they continue to work on replacing flights. Low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines launches flights there this month.
“We’re trying, and eventually we’ll get some other carriers,” said Jim Huffman, chairman of the board overseeing the airport. “We’re going in the right direction.”
Much of the decline in flights is a result of the financial woes of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. At one time Cincinnati was a major hub for Delta. Delta’s restructuring under economic pressure led to the end of once-thriving regional carrier Comair last year. For many years, Comair had daily flights between Tri-State Airport, and during that time, Comair was the first leg of flights throughout the country and even the world.
A study by the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University says the airport is responsible for 22,724 jobs, with a $3.6 billion annual economic impact.
Airport officials say there won’t be a return to the heyday of 600-plus passenger flights daily, but the airport is building cargo traffic. DHL has been expanding its hub at the airport, and air cargo carrier Southern Air also is expanding in northern Kentucky. Air cargo generated 6,332 direct and indirect jobs with a $1.3 billion impact in 2012, the study reported.
“No question, that (economic) decline is being driven by the decline in passenger traffic,” said UC Economics Center research director Michael Jones, who worked on the study. “But it would be a lot worse without DHL and the air cargo growth.”
Why should the problems at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport be of any concern for people in this community?
One reason is that until its rather sudden demise, Comair had daily flights between Tri-State Airport and the Cincinnati airport, and during that time, Comair was the first leg of flights throughout the country and even the world. Passengers could get onto a Comair flight in Huntington, fly to the Cincinnati airport and catch a flight to just about anywhere they needed to go. The more flights out of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport the easier it is for flights from Huntington to make connections. Of course, Tri-State still has flights to Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and several locations in Florida.
While air passenger service out of Tri-State Airport has certainly improved in recent years, the airport still has only a tiny fraction of the number of flights larger airports have. Nevertheless, the loss of jobs in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky attributed to the decline in flights out of the Cincinnati airport shows just how important air passenger service is in attracting and keeping businesses and industries. Of course, residents of this community learned that lesson the hard way in the late 1990s when executives of Ashland Inc. cited air passenger service as one of the reasons the company was moving its corporate headquarters to Cincinnati. It’s ironic now that many companies are moving out of Cincinnati because of the decline in air passenger service there.
The Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky is conveniently located and easy to get to. It has excellent facilities that are now underused. Its decline mirrors the financial struggles of Delta Air Lines, but we are confident that the airport’s financial problems are only temporary. It will make a comeback, and when it does, it will be good news for the entire region.