Long term: Southwest lands in Cincinnati

The high ticket prices. Delta dominance and downsizing. The trips to Dayton.

The day has finally come that will alleviate years of headache for Greater Cincinnati aviators.

Southwest Airlines, the crown jewel of low-cost airlines, announced on Wednesday that it is coming to Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport, with daily non-stop flights to Chicago and Baltimore starting June 4th. The airline is pulling out of Dayton International Airport and shifting its flights to Cincinnati, much like the low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines’ move in 2013.

Amid blue, red, and yellow balloons and banners, business and political leaders on both sides of the Ohio River hailed the arrival of the Southwest as paving the way for an airport that was once notorious for having the highest ticket prices in the country. Hyperbole? Well, that’s not what they said when the discount stores Frontier and Allegiant hit town in recent years.

“Make no mistake, this … is … big,” said John Cranley, Mayor of Cincinnati.

Southwest Airlines carries more passengers domestically than any other airline and accounts for 25 percent of all US passengers. The model was developed for low-cost airlines – popular for its impeccable customer service. no reserved seats; and a resistance to baggage loading and exchange fees as competitor nickel-and-dime fliers. These are big reasons Southwest is the only discount airline with the seal of approval to lower fares at an airport across the board, aviation experts told The Enquirer.

In other words, Delta fears the southwest.

Dallas-based Southwest has done what no other competitor has done in a market that was once owned by Delta Air Lines. Southwest has won over the business world – and vice versa. The airline convinced enough companies to provide seat guarantees and received commitments from companies to cover some advertising expenses to promote the new service across the region.

Details of which companies and how much engagement were not disclosed, but the senior Cincinnati Business Committee, Cincinnati Regional Business Committee, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and REDI have been instrumental in connecting Southwest with large and medium-sized businesses .

“We believe there are people here who have a vested interest in making Southwest a success,” said David Harvey, Southwest’s managing director of business development. “We’ve been able to develop relationships with a number of key corporate partners to make formal travel arrangements long before we even begin service. That will put us in a big wind.”

Southwest first saw CVG a decade ago, Harvey said. This is roughly the time Delta began downsizing around 600 flights at CVG for decades, largely due to the Atlanta-based airline’s decision to move to other markets after its merger with Northwest Airlines. But Delta still held Greater Cincinnati strong enough to make CVG one of the most expensive airports in the country. The high fares still forced small and medium-sized business executives and vacationers to look for cheaper flights to Dayton.

Since Candace McGraw took over the management of the airport in the summer of 2011, CVG has been aggressively recruiting low-cost airlines. The airport tracked all domestic low-cost airlines, including JetBlue Airways. The turning point started in 2013.

After Frontier realized that many of its Dayton passengers were from the greater Cincinnati area, Frontier decided to step onto Delta’s lawn at CVG and launched daily non-stop flights to Denver in May. The Denver-based airline was CVG’s first low-cost airline in a decade. Planes quickly embraced Frontier and prompted discount airline Allegiant Air to try CVG in early 2014. Both airlines have made several expansions since then.

“Did that pave the way for the southwest? Oh, no doubt about it,” said McGraw. “You took an opportunity on us, and success creates success in the aviation industry.”

Not only have Frontier and Allegiant grown rapidly, but every airline at CVG saw passenger growth in 2016 over the previous year. This suggests that the southwest here is expanding beyond two cities.

“There are a lot of long-term chances if we get some early wins here,” said Harvey.

In the fall of 2014, Southwest took CVG seriously. Harvey began to quietly meet with airport officials and heads of the CBC, CRBC, the Chamber of Commerce, and REDI. Regular meetings were held in 2015 and the CBC asked an aviation advisor to assist with a formal business case at the end of the year. Also in 2015, CVG ended a 40-year contract with the airlines, under which Delta has influence on most of the airport’s business decisions.

A new deal balanced the power of airlines at CVG, where landing costs have fallen 44 percent over the past four years. This helped the business community build their case with Southwest, whose executives repeatedly heard recurring news of corporate concerns in Greater Cincinnati about falling flights and high fares during meeting hours last year.

Speaking to 200 regional companies each year, Johnna Reeder, President and CEO of REDI, said that air service “is undoubtedly the main problem I hear about”.

In November, the region’s Fortune 500 and other large corporate CEOs – all represented by the Cincinnati Business Committee – met with some of Southwest’s top executives. That pretty much sealed the deal. Many CEOs, including real estate developer and Reds co-owner Tom Williams, attended the press conference at CVG.

“This has been a full business-government collaboration in Kentucky and Ohio,” said Scott Farmer, CEO of Cintas.

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