When I flew into Cincinnati for the first time in 2014, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport—CVG’s formal name—was in dire need of damage control. It wasn’t plagued by the standard issues besetting big city airports, like the disheveled mess of commuters at LaGuardia, or the expansive maze of LAX, or the weather delays at O’Hare. In fact, CVG was an organized, efficient, and damn-near pleasant operation. Its problem was an economic one. My round-trip ticket from relatively affordable Ft. Lauderdale cost nearly $500, a ridiculous yet unsurprising figure for what was then the country’s second most expensive airport. But over the last three years, CVG has flipped industry perception and its own economic script and transformed a prohibitively overpriced and underutilized airport into a more affordable, busier, award-winning terminal. Awesome, right? But how did this happen?
Like many hard luck economic stories, CVG’s problems trace back to 2008. The Great Recession walloped the aviation industry and spurred consolidation, including Delta’s $2.6 billion acquisition of Northwest Airlines. At the time, CVG’s eggs were firmly in Delta’s basket; it had been a Delta hub since 1986, with the airline (and its subsidiaries) flying 68 percent of CVG passengers at the time of the merger. When Delta subsequently opted to scale back operations in Cincinnati in favor of comparable airports in Memphis and Detroit, CVG’s overall operations plummeted from more than 9 million passengers to less than 5 million in only three years.
“We had one airline that basically had a monopoly,” says CVG CEO Candace McGraw, who was brought in to right the ship in 2011 after a tumultuous stretch of leadership. (John Mok, hired in 2009 following the death of former CEO Bob Holscher, abruptly resigned just two years into his tenure.) As McGraw explains it, there were still plenty of potential customers, but without competition from other airlines, prices skyrocketed. From 2012 to 2014, the average CVG plane ticket cost $519.44—second only to the $544 it cost to fly out of Anchorage, Alaska. Local travelers were increasingly opting to drive farther to fly cheaper, purchasing tickets in cities like Louisville and Dayton where average prices were about $120 less. “We wanted to bring them back,” says McGraw.
In spite of inflated ticket prices, CVG maintained low carrying costs—what an airline pays to operate out of an airport—but the affordability was masked by Delta’s lingering, intimidating presence. So McGraw ditched the existing consulting firm used to recruit airlines for one focused on attracting more competition, particularly low-cost carriers such as Frontier and Allegiant. “CVG was one of two major airports in the U.S. without low-cost carrier service,” says McGraw. “We knew there was a significant demand.”
In May 2013, Frontier Airlines signed on. “Right from the start we found a very positive reaction from the community,” says Daniel Shurz, Frontier’s senior vice president of commercial. “We’re delivering the thing that Cincinnati didn’t have for the longest time.”
McGraw sees the Frontier deal as a key turning point in CVG’s reversal of fortune, citing its success as a “proof point” for other carriers. Less than a year later, Allegiant began service, followed quickly by OneJet, which offers nonstop flights to Pittsburgh. This June, CVG cemented its resurgence when it successfully lured Southwest—the great low-cost whale and second largest carrier in the country—away from Dayton.
The renewed competition yielded exactly what McGraw had hoped for: more customers and cheaper tickets. By 2016, CVG’s average ticket price was $383, lower than the Dayton and Louisville airports; the number of passengers had jumped 20 percent in three years. Add the airport’s ever-expanding commercial enterprises (including an expansion of the DHL hub and a $1.4 billion investment from Amazon) and bevy of marketing extras (hosting mini horses for travelers over the holidays, a new zoo-inspired play area, Cincinnati Museum Center displays), and the rehabilitation appears to have succeeded.
In early 2017, a Skytrax survey named CVG the world’s best airport serving between 5 and 10 million passengers. You can still make all the jokes you want about Cincinnati’s airport being in Kentucky, but the turbulent days of half-empty gates and costly flights to limited destinations seem to finally be in the past.
In 2016, Delta accounted for just 42 percent of passengers flying through CVG, while Frontier and Allegiant continued to grow. The low-cost carriers transported a combined 22 percent of all passengers last year.