Delta Airlines shows signs of improvement at CVG but there are still issues

Airline adds flights, but departures remain flat

HEBRON, Ky. -- It's been 12 months since we last heard from Delta Airlines about its status at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport . And the airline had good news to share last week when it announced service to two new cities for 2018.

Flights to Austin and Phoenix, respectively, will take off later this year . Word comes exactly a year after Delta pledged to improve its travel options at CVG. Officials say it's a sign the airline -- still the airport's largest -- has further stabilized after years of cuts.

But should we read into it much more than that?

While Delta has increased capacity here by 12 percent over two years, during that same time frame, its number of peak-day departures and total destinations remains flat. And criticism remains.

Here's what's changed:

  • Delta formally announced nonstop service from CVG to Austin, after reports first surfaced in January, a city it hasn't served since 2010. Flights will run six days a week -- every day except Saturday -- starting May 1 on a CRJ-700 aircraft.
  • Daily service to and from another new route -- Phoenix -- will begin Nov. 4 on a Boeing 737-800. Delta cut Phoenix in August 2012; although the airline operated seasonal service to Sky Harbor International Airport in April 2015.
  • Delta will also upgrade its CVG to Seattle service to year-round. Historically, Delta has not flown that route over winter months. The change goes into effect March 2, "based on strong demand from both business and leisure customers," the airline said.
  • And Delta is adding a third frequency to Baltimore beginning May 7 "to provide more convenient schedule options for business customers." Both Southwest and Allegiant currently fly direct to BWI.

In addition, Delta is upgrading capacity in 15 markets -- that's also part of its pledge in 2017 to add seats, improve schedules and upgrade aircraft; other carriers, too, are steering away from smaller, single-class regional jets:

  • In December, Delta upgraded Denver service from Boeing 717s to larger MD90 aircraft, "responding to customer demand" and providing over 40 percent more seats.
  • Beginning May 1, service to Fort Myers, Florida, will be upgraded to 110-seat Boeing 717 aircraft, up from 76-seat regional jets.
  • Select flights to Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Raleigh-Durham and Las Vegas will see added seat capacity
  • This August, service to Tampa will retain Boeing 717 equipment instead of a seasonal downgrade to a 76-seat regional jet.
  • Starting in April, Delta will improve its Saturday schedule in Chicago O'Hare, and then expand Saturday flying in Baltimore, Boston, Washington-Reagan, Raleigh-Durham and select Florida markets in June.

But there's still cause for complaint.

In terms of its peak-day departures at CVG, Delta sits steady at 82. That's the same number as in February 2017. The airline no longer flies nonstop to Memphis, Tennessee, so its number of total destinations -- Phoenix will make 36 -- is roughly the same as last year, too.

The Seattle expansion was largely pegged to growth in that market. Delta, for example, said it's planning a 10-percent increase in peak-day seats at its Seattle hub for summer 2018. 

And international travelers have been clamoring for years for more trans-Atlantic flights. Delta's only nonstop to Europe from CVG, a leg to Paris, marked its 20th anniversary in 2017.

Jay Ratliff, a local aviation expert, lists himself among those hardest on Delta over the years. CVG, once a major hub for the airline, weathered a decade of downsizing -- the most recent slash came in 2015, when Delta cut service to 14 cities overall.

But he admits he loves what he's seen lately. It shows the airline is listening and responding to the community's needs.

"Everybody wants to look at the glory days (when Delta offered more than 600 daily departures). We're past that now. Delta has grown recently; they're bringing in larger equipment to match demand, which is great to see," Ratliff said. "People ask all the time, 'Is Delta responding to competition (from Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest)?' Absolutely not. There's just more people are flying locally out of CVG than ever before.

"Delta's looking at that, but if people aren't filling up seats, they're going to take that plane somewhere else," he added.

CVG's Bobby Spann, vice president of external affairs, said Delta has logged 27 consecutive months of year-over-year local passenger growth. That's over two years' worth. He's kept a constant check on the numbers, and presents them each month to the Kenton County Airport Board.

"Delta takes a lot of hits for their decreases over the last several years… but they're really hitting a home run at CVG right now," Spann said this summer.

Delta's changes are about improving delivery at CVG -- not so much adding flights from a macro perspective, he added. Delta is more focused on the local traveler versus the hub of old.

And Spann expected "more good news from Delta" in 2018. Last week's announcement seems par for the course. Delta says with the recent additions it will serve all top 20 domestic markets from CVG.

"I think it's safe to say that Delta's stabilized at CVG, and they're going to be growing from here," Spann said.

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