Can CVG get 9 million passengers by 2021?

HEBRON, Ky. – The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport topped the 6 million-passenger mark in 2015 – a year highlighted by Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, overall air service growth and a busy holiday travel season – but officials are eying a much bigger target come 2021 as hopes hinge on adding more low-cost carriers to the mix.

CVG released its year-end traffic tallies Tuesday, and in 2015, the airport served 6.3 million passengers, its highest count since 2011, and a 6.6 percent increase from the 5.9 million in 2014, its best year-over-year improvement in a decade. But officials want to top the 9 million mark in five years, according to its most recent shorter-term strategic plan.

CVG has had a few early strikes in 2016 to help meet that quota – American Airlines launched new service to LaGuardia in New York City and both Frontier and Allegiant are adding new routes this spring. Allegiant just launched a new crew base. And airfares – once considered among the nation's highest – continue to drop as a tribute to those low-cost carriers. Of CVG's 53 non-stop markets, roughly 45 percent, or 23 destinations, can be reached via Frontier and/or Allegiant.

But it will likely take a more diverse carrier base – in other words, more than just Allegiant and Frontier – to achieve that goal.

CVG does not speculate on future air service plans, but Southwest, Spirit Airlines and Jet Blue are all in the mix – or at least have been mentioned in outside conversations in recent months. Analysts WCPO.com contacted in 2015 all predicted the airport would land at least one this year.

"The passenger growth is helping us attract other carriers to the airport," said Bobby Spann, CVG's vice president of external affairs. "The interest is growing. We expect things to only improve from here."

CVG has had success bringing local passengers back. In 2015, that number grew 16 percent – 367,000 new travelers used the airport last year.

In other airport news, CVG also had a record 2015 in terms of cargo. For the first time ever, the airport exceeded 800,000 tons, an increase of 11.3 percent year-over-year.

Since 2011, cargo volume has increased more than 50 percent, Spann said, a huge credit to DHL, which operates a super-hub here, one of only three across the globe.

CVG hasn't set a like goal for future tonnage, but that number will likely increase anyway, given DHL's most recent $108 million expansion that will be complete around November. CVG still ranks as the ninth largest cargo airport in North America but has improved six spots to sit at No. 34 in the world. It's not a long shot to overtake the No. 8 North American slot, held now by Indianapolis.

"Cargo continues to be the shining star," Spann said. "We are the fastest growing cargo airport in North America, and with the (recent) DHL investment, they're going to be able to park 16 more aircraft on the ramp. With that capability and capacity improvement, I wouldn't say Indianapolis is out of our reach."

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