Sunday, July 08, 2001

Comair-Delta still 800-pound gorilla

Other airline wary of the challenge

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Comair resumed service last Monday after an 89-day pilot strike, airline president Randy Rademacher said Cincinnati was the Erlanger-based carrier's turf and Comair was ready to take on all comers.

        It appears, however, that despite a minor outbreak in challenges, Comair and parent company Delta Air Lines continue to be the local and virtually unopposed champ.

        One carrier, Mesa Air Group, last week canceled plans to fly to six cities from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport — service that had been scheduled to begin today.

        And experts say local travelers shouldn't expect many more challenges to Delta, which operates its second-largest hub locally, or Comair, which operated the most flights at the airport before the strike.

        The reason?

        There aren't enough Tristate travelers to go around.

        “Cincinnati already has more air service than it can support,” said Michael Boyd, an airline/airport consultant based in Evergreen, Colo. “Without the hub, Cincinnati probably doesn't have enough traffic to support even one major airline with continual service.”

        Actually, the airport has the most passenger carriers in its history following Saturday's addition of AC Jet, which is flying between Cincinnati and Burlington, Vt.

        AC Jet is a member of the Delta Connection network, along with Comair. It brings to 15 the number of separate airlines flying locally.

        And Air Canada Regional last month started service to Toronto, competing directly with Comair. United Express begins a route between Cincinnati and Washington-Dulles next month, again going after a Comair route.

        But airport spokesman Ted Bushelman said local passengers (what the industry calls origination and destination traffic) accounted for just 29 percent of the total travelers passing through the facility.

        Before the strike, the airport was serving nearly 50,000 passengers daily, meaning about 14,000 were local travelers.

        “If you compare what we have with other cities our size, there's no doubt that the amount of flights and international service we have is not justified by our size,” Mr. Bushelman said. “We feel fortunate to have Delta and Comair bringing in the local flights.”

        Mr. Bushelman said the airport is continually looking for new blood, especially low-cost carriers, such as Southwest or AirTran. But 10 airlines have come and gone — including Vanguard twice — in the last 12 years.

        Mr. Bushelman said the problem isn't generally matching Delta's price, it's matching its frequency.

        “There just aren't enough airplanes, and no one wants to come in here with the number of airplanes it would take to make a dent,” Mr. Bushelman said. “Before the strike, we served 76 cities where you could fly out in the morning, have a five-hour meeting and then be back that night.”

        For its part, Delta says it welcomes competition.

        And Mr. Rademacher said that Comair also wants to use any new competition “to spur ourselves to recover that much faster.”

        Last Monday, when Comair relaunched service to 26 cities, a number that will grow to 78 by the end of the month, he said, “We're glad they're here, but we feel that this is our turf. So I wish good luck to them.”

        Mr. Boyd said Mesa might have been able to keep fares low initially — the company planned to offer tickets for $99 each way through September — but that in the long run, the company would have had to match Delta's and Comair's.

        “If anybody believes it would have meant lower fares, they're dreaming,” Mr. Boyd said. “Mesa was there for only one reason, to provide a possible alternative if Comair was put out of business by the strike or as a possible way to ramp up more quickly. Delta wouldn't dance, so they walked.”

        Even if the number of local passengers may be relatively low, local air fares are the second highest nationally, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. And earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Cincinnati was one of the nation's “pockets of pain” when it came to predatory hub pricing.

        Many local travelers say that's because of the local dominance of Delta and Comair — the two airlines controlled 93 percent of the airport's passengers before the strike.

        One local traveler said he was ready to fly on Mesa on principle.

        “I wanted to give my money to somebody other than Delta,” said Matt Rost, 45, a Columbia-Tusculum funeral-home director who flies for leisure about three or four times a year. “I was just going to pick a city and go, just to make it worth it for Delta's competition.”

        Mr. Boyd said the higher-than-average fares are the norm at hubs, and that benefits of local employment, the number of direct flights and flight frequency generally balance out the costs.

        “Ashland Oil relocated (to Covington), and did it primarily because of the airport,” Mr. Boyd said. “If not for the airport and its direct connections, those jobs would be lost.

        “Fares are high to everywhere, especially smaller cities, unless you are flying from a high-population city to another high-population city. Local demand makes the prices low, and you just don't have that in Cincinnati.”


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