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When Airlines Depart Cities, Businesses May Follow

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When Airlines Depart Cities, Businesses May Follow

Business

When Airlines Depart Cities, Businesses May Follow

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The food company Chiquita made the decision last month to move its corporate headquarters from Ohio to North Carolina. It said it was lured South in part by the number of flights in and out of Charlotte's airport. Cincinnati came out on the losing end. Like many cities, its airport hub is shrinking.

Ann Thompson of member station WVXU reports on how airline cutbacks are affecting the city's business climate.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: The Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, or CVG, is big and kind of empty. Business traveler John Bonno from Atlanta was noticing recently how desolate it feels.

JOHN BONNO: You know, I remember coming here a few years ago and it was a hub of activity, you know, with all three concourses. And now there's only, what, one concourse left if that. And it's just really amazing to see this huge infrastructure supporting very little flights.

THOMPSON: In 2005, Delta offered lots of daily flights out of Cincinnati, 670 each day with direct service to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Rome and Paris. But after a bankruptcy filing and a merger with Northwest, it now only has 170 daily flights and only one direct international destination, Paris. That concerns many here in the city's business community.

Chamber of Commerce president Ellen van der Horst says they need to develop a business case for additional sustainable air service.

ELLEN VAN DER HORST: Everyone knows, air service levels at CVG are at a lower level than we would like to see and at a lower level than we think we can make a case for.

THOMPSON: A new taskforce has hired a consultant and big Cincinnati companies like Proctor and Gamble, GE Aviation and Macy's are lobbying for what airlines and routes they'd like to have.

Aviation writer Jim Ott says Cincinnati certainly isn't alone with these kinds of challenges. Increasingly, medium-sized cities and their taxpayers are going to have to subsidize airlines to get better service.

JAMES OTT: Yes, with the mergers and the bankruptcies that occurred in the airline business, Pittsburgh lost out when U.S. Airways, you know, really de-hubbed at Pittsburgh. The same thing happened with American Airlines de-hubbing in St. Louis.

THOMPSON: But Ott says Pittsburgh has turned the situation around, bringing in three low-cost carriers to supplement the legacy airlines, and getting Delta to add a direct flight to Paris.

Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Brad Penrod says it wasn't easy.

BRAD PENROD: So the first two years we waved landing fees and certain gate fees and we ran that out to the maximum allowed by law. And in the community, the corporate Pittsburgh community actually stepped up and say if a certain revenue dollar amount is not meant that the corporate Pittsburgh would make up to a $5 million payment for the first year.

THOMPSON: Penrod says no more corporate payments were necessary, and the flight to Paris is now paying for itself. In St. Louis, airport officials and others have a plan to become a cargo hub. They were targeting China, but with millions in tax incentives failing to pass the legislature, the city may turn its attention to Latin and South America. Meanwhile, aviation analysts say the airline will follow the money and it will take a sufficient amount to add the flight cities crave.

Ellen van der Horst at the Cincinnati's Chamber says she doesn't expect Delta to go back to 670 flights a day at CVG. But she knows that for Cincinnati to attract and retain more business, it will mean landing more flights.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

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