Monday, October 15, 2001

Study looks into airlines at Lunken

Some vow to fight passenger service

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Lunken Airport could soon be known for something other than the takeoff point for dignitaries, private pilots or corporate bigwigs. City officials who oversee the 1,000-acre facility are beginning an extensive study to see if it's feasible to bring in a passenger airline to provide scheduled service.

Map of Lunken Airport
        This includes spending more than $250,000 to study current and future noise impacts — something that's never been done at Lunken.

        Even though scheduled service is only being studied, neighbors are upset at the prospect and fear that the process may have already begun. The airport is evicting several tenants from nearby hangars to upgrade its safety rating and handle commercial passenger planes with 30 or more seats.

        And residents are vowing to fight it.

Pilot's view of Lunken Airport (Glenn Hartong photo)
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        “The main issue is a long-term one,” said Robert Roark, 55, a professional pilot from Indian Hill whose home sits on a major flight path to and from Lunken. “This facility has a major growth potential and is even larger than New York's LaGuardia Airport. We don't believe them when they say that they will limit this thing.”

        Cincinnati officials also are further examining Lunken's revenue potential and power as a development tool, saying that passenger service could double revenues at Lunken to nearly $3 million annually.

        And they want to spend $150,000 to improve security to the point where the airport would meet federal standards for handling ticketed passengers.

        “We definitely could fill a niche here,” airport manager Dan Dickten said. “In the past, CVG (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport) filled the need. Well, maybe there's a different need now, along with more congestion at the bigger airports.”

        Initial plans call for planes no larger than 19-seat turboprops flying three routes a day to Lunken and no more than 12 flights a day within five years, although the airport has yet to land a tenant.

        “We're not looking at anything bigger,” Mr. Dickten said.

A place in history

        Lunken, established as a permanent airfield in 1925, served as a refueling stop for Charles Lindbergh between New York and St. Louis before and after his trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. It also is known as the birthplace of American Airlines, which started as a mail carrier and parent company of local mail carrier Embry-Riddle Co.

        The 1,000-acre airport complex hasn't had regularly scheduled service since 1963, except a short-lived attempt in 1990 by Midway Airlines (a different airline than the one that went bankrupt last month).

        Mr. Dickten and Cincinnati transportation director John Deatrick, who took over responsibility for both Lunken and Blue Ash Airports in July, both say the airport could begin service soon after required safety improvements are made.

        The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to meet certain security standards before allowing service to begin, but will certify an airport only if a carrier has committed to begin flying there. Further safety standards — fire and ice removal capability, for example — also need to be met before bigger commercial passenger planes could use the facility, but 19-seat aircraft do not qualify.

        Mr. Dickten said he hopes the airport would have a total of 12 daily flights that use both turboprops and 50-seat regional jets within five years. The airport has three runways and currently handles about 130,000 landings and take-offs annually, primarily by private pilots, charter flights or jets owned by the likes of Carl Lindner or Procter & Gamble Co. It is also the preferred local airport when dignitaries such as First Lady Laura Bush or former Vice President Al Gore come to town.

        The final level of service would generate an additional $1.5 million in revenue, Mr. Dickten predicted, a sum equal to what the airport generates now. Most of the money would come from new rents and new parking fees.

        Mr. Dickten said there is the demand for such service, referring to a survey of local businesses conducted last year. The survey found there was a demand for more than 3,800 seats annually to Chicago, and that local businesses said in essence “"If you bring it, we'll use it' in their comments to us,” Mr. Dickten said. He said the attacks of Sept. 11 and the subsequent drop in demand for air travel probably wouldn't change demand long-term.

        The airport has held preliminary talks with Pan American Airlines out of Pease, N.H., a commuter airline that serves Gary, Ind., and other secondary airports, said Mr. Dickten. Officials for that company said they were expanding — especially in Florida — but Cincinnati was not in the company's immediate plans.

        Mr. Deatrick said that, in addition to looking at a potential new revenue stream for the city, officials are studying other impacts, including on local businesses and development. Airport officials have already begun discussions with a developer who wants to put a hotel near the facility.

        “This is a delicate balance between the users, the businesses, the residents and the recreational users,” Mr. Deatrick said, adding that any final decisions would be made by Cincinnati City Council. “But we wouldn't be good stewards of this facility if we didn't look at the options.”

Possible hurdles

        Mr. Dickten said there were few operational challenges to scheduled service at Lunken. He said that airlines could schedule around morning fog common to the area, adding that new technology makes landings easier. He also said there were no potential conflicts with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky's airspace.

        As for security, Lunken has already spent $15,000 on improving a terminal room that includes new security scanning machines for passengers and baggage.

        In addition, Mr. Dickten said, the Hamilton County Sheriff's office would conduct passenger screening free of charge to air lines as part of officer training.

        He added that if the security improvements are made that would allow the airport to serve ticketed passengers, the facility would not be able to turn carriers away if Lunken wanted to keep its federal funding.

        That's what scares Mr. Roark and fellow coalition member Mel Martin.

        “We want them to look at other internal things before they look at passenger service,” said Mr. Martin, former mayor of Madeira and currently chairman of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Region Council of Government's land use commission. “Once you get started down the passenger road, it won't stop until we're seeing 737s every hour.”


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