9 signs CVG is an airport on the rise after having its best month ever

HEBRON, Ky. -- The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is hot right now, and it's not just because summer temperatures are rising.

CVG is coming off a record-setting May, Amazon has initiated cargo flights and Southwest has gotten off to a strong start. And officials expect more of the same in June and July.

But, just a few years ago, as the story goes, the view was much different. There were many declines following Delta’s peak in the 1990s, including Comair's closing, Concourse C coming down, the loss of hundreds of flights, a quiet exit by Branson Air, a DHL exodus and inner turmoil, to name a few. 

Has CVG finally shed its baggage from the past? Here are 9 signs that show CVG is an airport on the rise:

1. DHL returned 

DHL's exodus in 2005 proved a premonitory precursor. Later that year, Delta began to downsize its CVG hub, and nationally, the airline industry continued its decline.

When DHL acquired Airborne Express, it moved all operations to Wilmington, Ohio, an airport facility wholly owned by Airborne, and shut down operations at CVG.

DHL’s return to CVG from Wilmington included a major expansion.

But a failed attempt at the domestic shipping market -- which pit DHL against FedEx and UPS -- led to its return to CVG in 2009. The facility was right-sized for their restructured U.S. operations. 

Since its return, DHL has dominated the cargo market at CVG and has invested $280 million in Northern Kentucky, with a workforce around 3,300. The most recent expansion, a $108 million upgrade, increased its footprint by 29 percent.

In 2015, DHL and CVG agreed to a long-term lease extension that will keep the cargo heavyweight here through 2045.

"Our partnership with DHL is one of our most important," CVG CEO Candace McGraw said. "Their success is our success."

2. Land buys on the rise 

CVG owns and maintains 7,500 acres, but not all that land is earmarked for airport operations. So officials in recent years made moves to market its many vacant lots, an effort that went against the old-school regime. 

"There were some naysayers along the way," McGraw said. 

They were proved wrong. In 2015, CVG landed Dermody, which leased a 52-acre site. Dermody, in turn, leased a newly built building to Wayfair, and the online home goods retailer moved in in 2016. At nearly 900,000 square feet, it was the largest single development by square footage in Dermody's 55-year existence.

“The vision of the CVG team in offering this site provided an excellent development opportunity,” said Greg Arnold, a Dermody partner. "We looked a multiple sites in Northern Kentucky, probably eight to 10 sites, but when we drove this one, I stopped. It's ideally located."

The deal was significant because it marked the airport's very first speculative lease, but it's ever bigger in retrospect, because it paved the way for more good things to come.

3. Amazon singles out CVG 

In January, after months of quiet talks, big news broke. Amazon released plans for a new centralized air cargo hub, a $1.49 billion project that could mean 2,700 jobs. 

It will take several years for the development to reach full scale, although Amazon began cargo service May 1 with 14 planes on site, utilizing DHL space. It plans to increase that number to 20 this year, McGraw said. CVG continues to work with Amazon on shaping the project overall.

"Amazon will have more detailed plans once they refine their operations at DHL," McGraw said.

With Amazon's addition, CVG expects a bump in the rankings. Bobby Spann, vice president of external affairs, said they'll likely surpass Indianapolis as the No. 7 largest cargo airport in North America.

4. Low-cost airlines thrive

CVG spent years recruiting low-cost service, and finally, a bite. Frontier launched in 2013. While travelers are now enjoying low fares to dozens of new destinations, for the airport, it was a major step in its transition as a Delta-dominated hub. Delta, at its peak, offered more than 600 daily departures. Today that number lingers in the 80s.

Frontier was the first low-cost airline to thrive at CVG. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Frontier started with one flight a day to Denver. It now operates 93 flights a week to 17 destinations. In May, the airline hit its 2 million-passenger mark -- doubling the count in a little over a year.

In 2016, Allegiant, which started service at CVG in 2014, established a base of operations, which allows the airline to add flights with ease. CVG is one of the largest markets in its network.

5. Southwest lands

A category of its own, Southwest's arrival is considered a "game-changer" by many.

For CVG, it means more diversity -- and another feather in the cap in the effort to recruit additional airlines.

Airport CEO Candace McGraw (left), Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and local business leaders welcome Southwqest to CVG at a news conference.

Southwest, known for its friendly service and zero baggage fees, launched June 4 with two destinations. Airport officials said they're "pleased with bookings" thus far. 

"We've talked to them already about additional routes, and I'm hopeful they'll take us up on that," McGraw said.

6. Concourse A sees new life 

Concourse A was once a harrowing reminder of Delta's downward spiral -- the airline abandoned its gates there in 2010, a year after exiting the now demolished Concourse C. But Concourse A received a $10.4 million tune-up this year. The airport brought online additional departure gates, among other improvements, to accommodate new and expanded air service. That's in addition to the $36.5 million already spent in renovations in 2012. 

A new quick-serve restaurant, Blaze Pizza, will open in 2018, and other short-term solutions are in the works in the interim to meet increased demand for food.

7. Rankings hit a high note 

CVG's been awarded many accolades in recent years, but in June, there was this nod. It was the only U.S. airport to rank in the top 10 of AirHelp's world's best. Nationally, Cincinnati beat out San Francisco, 19; Seattle-Tacoma International, 39; and Miami International Airport, 44, among others.

AirHelp studied quality and service, punctuality and travelers' tweets to make its determination. 

8. New projects gain ground

Out with the old, in with the new. CVG bulldozed its abandoned Terminals 1 and 2 in 2016 to make way for a new consolidated rental car facility. The CONRAC will house all rental car operators under one roof, an extra perk for passengers.

It's another sign of a new era at CVG -- the airport is seeing an increase in passengers so it must be more efficient. 

9. Records set -- with more to come

In May, CVG set new bests for both passenger and cargo volume. Local traffic was up 16.1 percent year-over-year -- the airport counted 323,049 originating passengers versus 278,344 the year before, a gain of 44,705. 

CVG also set a record in terms of most cargo tonnage handled in one month, 88,369 tons, an increase of 30.7 percent year-over-year.

Overall, landed weight in May was up 32.9 percent year-over-year. Travelers are paying on average $170 less per roundtrip ticket than they were two years ago. 

And as carriers ramp up their summer schedules -- Baltimore/Washington, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York City and San Diego have been added to the mix -- expect more records to fall, and soon.

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