Cincinnati airport trying to rebuild after drastic reduction in flights - could this happen in CLE?

CINCINNATI - Two years after its merger with Continental, United Airlines is still consolidating its operations, including here in Cleveland. The latest government statistics show flights are down 3 percent year over year at Hopkins Airport. There's been a drastic reduction in flights in Cincinnati the last few years because of high fuel prices, and the Delta merger. We traveled to Cincinnati to see the impact the merger had on that city. Some aviation experts say you'd have to ignore history to think Cleveland won't lose more flights.

Modern conveniences, a fresh look, and people waiting to help you all await you when you land at Cincinnati's airport in Northern Kentucky. The airport's new marketing campaign, "Get here, get there, get home" underscores the ease of the airport.

The airport consolidated its operations in one area, after it closed a terminal. There are silent baggage carousels and abandoned gates.

While most passengers will never see the eyesores, you can't hide the problems even with a makeover.

"It's a little on the empty side," out of town traveler Brian Johnson said.

How often have you seen an empty McDonalds?

"There is no-one at the stores. No-one on the flight," Johnson said.

Johnson flew from Newark to Cincinnati and estimates at least 10 seats were vacant on his plane. The Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport sustained its hub status after Delta and Northwest Airlines merged, but it hasn't retained the activity. The airport lost 72 percent of its flights in the last few years. Some due to high gas prices, consolidation in the industry, and the merger.

"You could time it. There was an airplane landing every two minutes," pilot Allen Cook said. "Now to sit there and look and not see an airplane anywhere around is just amazing."

Cook flew for Comair. It was a wholly owned subsidiary of of Delta. The Cincinnati based airline shut down in September leaving Allen without a job.

"We're going through a total life change right now," Cook said.

Cook was lucky and recently found another job, but he'll be based at another airport that's a plane ride away. The impact of losing so many flights is hitting close to home for those who worked at the airport, and those who did not.

Chiquita Brands moved its headquarters to another state. One reason cited was the availability of more international flights in the new city.

"It's a huge ripple effect beyond anything i would have thought would have happened," Cook explained.

Cleveland leaders want travelers to support the hub
The City of Cleveland wants to avoid a similar fate for Hopkins Airport. It's estimated to be a $4 billion economic engine. Businesses are "Uniting for Cleveland's Hub" and paying up to $300 more per ticket to fly out of Hopkins.

The State of Ohio even got involved and signed an agreement with United that keeps the hub in Cleveland until 2015.

"They are only delaying the inevitable," Aviation analyst Jay Ratliff said.

Ratliff went through his share of mergers as General Manager of Northwest Airlines. He said Cincinnati lost flights because it was so close to other Delta hubs like Detroit.

Experts say they think Cleveland will face the same issue with it's proximity to United's Chicago hub. Cook even said Newark could pose a problem to Cleveland, because it's only a short flight away. It raises the question - do you really need a third hub between your other two?

Ratliff said you'd have to ignore history to think Cleveland won't see a reduction in flights.

"That can easily drop under 100 or 75 flights a day. Which the unfortunate part is you have an incredible proven facility there. It's going to be a ghost town," Ratliff said.

I asked him how he can say that with such confidence, because some people would say he's crazy to think the numbers will drop that low.

"They said I was crazy in Columbus when America West was purchased. US Airways bought American West. They said Columbus is going to be okay. I said no it won't. Same thing with Cincinnati and Delta," Ratliff said.

Cincinnati is banking its future on cargo operations like DHL. The company is investing $47 million to expand its Superhub at the airport.

United said Cleveland is an important part of its network and the airline is working with the city to provide a sustainable future for Cleveland air service.

City leaders have told me in the past they don't believe flights will be reduced with so much development in the downtown area.

Those predicting change expect it will happen in the next few years.

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