Friday, August 3, 2012

The Downsizing and Dying of CVG.



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Even late at night, an airport can still be a center of human activity, but imagine being in an abandoned one completely devoid of life - no aircraft, no passengers and no luggage. Cincinnati's airport is actually located in Kentucky, about thirteen miles across the river from downtown. Once one of the nation's fastest growing airports, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) has been on a steady decline for nearly a decade. Like many other midwestern airports, CVG bet on a hub and seems to have lost. The forgotten relics of better days, more flights and more passengers now exist behind sealed walls and locked doors - captured in a rare opportunity of the photographs that follow.



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It's a cold, wet night some time ago. The airport's guide lights can be seen from the highway as I pull off the exit designated specifically for the airport. I meet with an anonymous source close to Queen City Discovery who has offered to give myself and a select group of other photographers a tour of the now closed portions of CVG. We're whisked away to an eerie site. The power is still on and the airport's radio soundtrack is still faintly playing on the speakers above despite the fact that Terminal 1 hasn't seen a plane or a passenger since 2007. Even when it closed five years ago, the terminal had a dated appearance. At this point in its life, the 1970's era furniture lines hallways now used for storage. The pay phones have been dismantled, but are still equipped with phone books. The signs above still give direction, but ultimately lead to a wall separating the terminal from the main airport. This part of CVG is a ghost town, a shuttered terminal at a still struggling airport.

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It wasn't always this way though.

- CVG circa 1960's. Image credit: Northern Kentucky Views

It may seem perplexing that the main commercial airport for Cincinnati isn't actually in the city or even in the same state. Cincinnati's historic Lunken Airport had been the area's preferred commercial airline destination for some time. Lunken's problem though was its proximity to the Ohio River which threatened flooding, fog and expansion. With the onset of World War Two, the United States Army Air Corps began building flight training fields all across America. Local politicians were successful in lobbying for a field to be built in Northern Kentucky in hopes that it could eventually become a major commercial airport. Following the end of the war, the airport began receiving its first commercial flights in 1947. By the onset of the jet age, CVG had officially become Cincinnati's main airport.

- President John F. Kennedy speaking at CVG. Image credit: Northern Kentucky Views

With President Carter's signing of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1979, many airports began rapid expansion, especially CVG. In 1986, CVG had become a hub for Delta Airlines. Delta became the dominant carrier at the airport, achieving a near monopoly status that continues to this day. Delta's increase in flights opened up Greater Cincinnati with direct service to many European countries. Growth and expansion continued over the years with the addition of new concourses and gates. A new runway opened in 1991 and was followed in 1994 by the construction of concourses B and C, an underground rail system connecting them and an improved road system. Despite the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, CVG continued to grow.

CVG peaked in 2005 at 22 million passengers for the year. The airport boasted 670 daily departures at the time, 600 of them Delta flights alone, but being an exclusive hub for Delta began to show its drawbacks. After years of success, growth and expansion at CVG, Delta began a major downsizing.

In December of 2005 Delta announced a 26% reduction in service, the same month that the airport opened a new runway built on the idea of even more expansion. Bad news kept coming as Delta continued to reduce service and flights. By 2010, only 10 million passengers were using CVG annually - a 50% drop in just five years. In June of 2011, Delta announced another round of service cuts and dropped its daily flights to approximately 150.


Using the above map as reference, you can see the immense size of CVG. As of this writing (8/3/2012), only Concourse A and B of Terminal 3 are used.

Terminal 1 was closed in 2007. Concourse C, which housed all Delta Connection and Comair (a Delta subsidiary) closed in 2009. In May of 2012, Terminal 2 was closed and all remaining flights were consolidated to concourses A and B.  According to the airport's "Master Plan" obtained by The Cincinnati Enquirer in June 2012; CVG had been studying moving all flights solely to Concourse A. Exactly one month later on July 27, 2012; Delta announced that it was closing its Comair brand. While not yet official, the centralization of all flights to the newly renovated Concourse A seems inevitable. The same "Master Plan" calls for Terminals 1 and 2 to be demolished and replaced by a centralized rental car facility. Concourse C's future remains a mystery as Delta has a lease on the building until 2025.

With so much extra space, CVG seems like the perfect place for another airline, particularly a low-cost brand, to move in, right? Unfortunately, the exclusivity of the airports contracts with Delta prevent most competitors from coming on. Not to mention, nearby airports in Dayton and Columbus, OH; Lousiville and Lexington, KY; and Indianapolis, IN offer cheaper fares and low-cost competitors within close proximity. Other airlines would have little benefit in moving to CVG.

What was once Delta's second largest hub is now a ghost town of an airport, the remains of which can be seen in the images from our exclusive tour below.

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- The hallway of Terminal 1 has been relegated to storage.


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-  Since Terminal 1 is the airport's original terminal, passengers actually boarded planes via stairs on the tarmac instead of using modern jetway ramps.


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- Old chairs in Terminal 1.


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- Faded USAirways logo on an upper floor of Terminal 1.


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- The end of Terminal 1 which separates to an upper floor that at one point connected to the other airport terminals.

As CVG expanded in the 1970's, a previous icon of Cincinnati transit was facing its own uncertain future. The former passenger railroad hub of Union Terminal had been sold in 1972 and expansion of nearby freight railroads threatened to demolish historic murals that had been designed specifically for one of Cincinnati's finest buildings. CVG accepted the murals and they debuted at the airport in 1974. Now an icon of the airport, they even made an appearance in the critically acclaimed film "Rain Man" which starred Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in 1988.

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- The airport's murals from Union Terminal as seen in this shot from Rain Man (1988).

As the airport continued its downsizing in recent years, the public lost the chance to see certain murals. These days, only the few office workers who inhabit the abandoned parts of the airport are able to gaze upon the artworks. With uncertainty regarding which buildings will be demolished, if any, the fate of the murals is in question.

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- Murals and an unused baggage claim.


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After viewing Terminal 1 and what was left of Terminal 2, our tour took us below ground to an older part of the airport. While unsure, it would seem these parts of the airport were once solely for employee access and abandoned amongst expansion in the 70's. They could just as easily be mistaken for the set of a horro movie or double as holding cells for the Transportation Security Administration.

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- The underbelly of CVG.


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We rose back to the surface and proceeded to our next stop, past more forgotten ticket counters and luggage carousels to abandoned offices.

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One of the more astounding sights was that of the former Delta Crown Room. Now called "Delta Sky Club," these member only areas of airports were places for monthly paying members to relax and work in an exclusive club away from the rest of the airport.

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- The abandoned Delta Crown Room.


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- Alcohol left on the Crown Room bar.


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- Footprints in layers of dust on the Crown Room floor.

Our next stop took us to a control tower. While not the one where air traffic controllers communicate with flights landing and departing the airport, this one once was used to direct aircraft on where to park and what gates to approach.

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In just seven years, CVG has become a shell of its former self. While the airport does act as a major hub for shipping giant DHL, its passenger service is severely lacking. CVG's demise and location is often credited as being a hinderance to businesses in Cincinnati. In September of 2011, Chiquita announced it was moving its world headquarters from Cincinnati and cited lack of airport service as one of the main reasons.

The near-monopoly hub status of Delta airlines that once brought so much prosperity has also been the airport's downfall. What is to become of CVG has yet to be seen. Until then, the airport's ghostly unused buildings serve as a reminder to how much better things were not so long ago.

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For more information on CVG, check out Jake Mecklenborg's article over at Urban Cincy.

26 comments:

  1. This is a fascinating article about CVG's history. Really well done! Concourse C has a cool footprint. I wonder what it looks like inside.

    I also have to ask, how did you hear about / get to participate in this tour?

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  2. ^ Agree! Pictures and article - just fascinating. I had no idea (born in Cincinnati, reloacted 12 years ago out of state) that CVG had downsized that much. And I guess I could be an example of why - when I fly home to see family, more often than not, I fly into Dayton. Usually has better rates.

    Just great job on the article.

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    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it!

      The high fares of Delta have certainly been of no help to CVG. For awhile, it was really the best option in the region and prices kept rising, rising and rising. Delta almost had a monopoly and was making CVG money so why let anyone else in? In turn the low cost carriers and other airlines went to other airports in the region.

      I've only flown out of CVG a handful of times and when I do look for flights, it's usually last on the list for price.

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  3. The alcohol bottles left in Crown Room A are "dummy" bottles. They are actually filled with soft drinks and water to imitate the contents.

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    1. Did you taste them to find out first hand?

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  4. Da planes don't come 'round he no mo. I's rememba when it wad filled up with da folks goin' to and fro', god how de moved somin fierce........

    This decline narrative is just too simplistic. Things are changing, but Cincinnati is not detroit, or even St. Louis. Don't look at Cincinnnati through their experiences. This is a bigger national story about transporation regulation, changing travel patterns, and new technologies and markets that mean that people travel differently. CVG is becoming a air freight center. columbus has chased this market for years and Cincinnati is quickly passing them by in the volume of air freight.

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  5. Fascinating article. Thanks for this and the pictures.

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  6. Delta should build rail lines from Cincinnati, Lexington, and Louisville to CVG. Expand the customer base.

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  7. A couple people already hit this one... Prices.... I have even driven to Detroit because it was THAT much cheaper and didn't give me as many layover. CVG is just not traveler friendly. End of story. And until they learn that the people are whats keeping them running, it's sadly going to continue downhill. I'd honestly love to not drive to Columbus or Dayton or Indy for a flight. I really would

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  8. Anyone know the actual details on the "exclusivity of the airport contracts with Delta" ? There are just so many open gates that it's hard for me and many others to believe that they could keep other new airlines out of all of them. Is Delta's gate rental price just that dramatically discounted that others can't compete directly on the same routes? I mean how is there not a way to incentivize new carriers around that contract language? Inquiring minds want to know.

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  9. I knew the Air Traffic Controller that was standing. His nickname was " The Whip". I was an Air Traffic Controller at CVG in the '70's just after the new control tower (the 2nd one) was built. I returned in the 90's and WOW what a difference. That job was nothing but a pressure cooker. I helped get the new control tower ready ( number three) on a controllers standpoint. After retiring, I was a bus driver for employees & passengers, a Parking cop ( after 9/11) that was fun. It proved to me how spoiled & unappreciative Americans are. A police dispatcher & a weatherman. 38 years. I knew more on how and why the airport operated, the security on the ground and in the air than anyone else there bar none.

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  10. So sad makes me want to cry I can't beleive it over I had the best part of this cvg COMAIR we loved our company and our job before Delta put us in the grave. Rest In peace Comair and CVG

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  11. What terminal was that Crown Room located.

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    1. Terminal 3, Concourse A. Nice art deco décor.

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  12. Someone asked what Concourse C was like. When I started flying in the mid-1990's I flew Comair quite a bit. You had to take the train in terminal 3 and from there take a bus to Concourse C. I remember early on that Concourse C seemed a bit outdated and very crowded. If you wanted something to eat there was very little to choose from. Just a few years before Concourse C closed, it was renovated and even with the bus ride, I loved flying out of there. Great food selections and a better experience than A or B. With the recent renovation of Concourse A, my hope was that more airlines would come into Cincinnati. Only time will tell I guess.

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  13. No, flight 5191 put ComAir in the grave.

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    1. One flight doesn't put an airline in the grave...its called the economy, Delta deciding there fate...among other factors.

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  14. As an Air Traffic Controller that worked the airspace next to CVG we were able to watch the slow death of a major hub.

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  15. Had family that worked for ComAir during their massive expansion. Their death calling happened on three fronts. #1- the pilots strike in March of 2001. they were never quite the same after that 89-day debacle. Then in 2004 they stranded 30,000 people over Christmas (1160 flights) because of a computer issue exasperated by the Christmas 2004 blizzard. Then Delta files bankruptcy in 2005, causing them to cherry-pick from the profitable pieces of their network.

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  16. CVG is as large as or larger than JFK or SFO in terms of the number of runways, the total length of the runways and the acreage of the airport. CVGG is more modern than those airports with underground trains. Those airports are in high income and high tax-paying areas with large percentages of international traffic and are undersized and overused for their markets. The people of NKY and Cincy should consider themselves lucky to have an airport built with federal dollars (as they all are) that far exceeded the federal tax collected in the metro area as compared to the tax collected and spent in the areas of the other airports listed. In other words CVG was heavily subsidized by areas that have a lot of more need for a better airport and pay a lot more taxes but did not get an airport in proportion to their respective needs. With Delta stripped away we see only just under 4 million enplanements at CVG. Compare that to almost 23 million at JFK. While ABX/DHL/Airborne or whatever it is called this week may be great they do not need 4 runways and an airport of this size – they did it with 2 in Wilmington OH – the worlds largest private airport. The senators/congressman in our area have done a good job of tunneling federal dollars toward a huge white elephant – next time you want to blame overspending on waste on another area of the country you have no ground to stand on.

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  17. I hope some other airline (or airlines) take advantage of the excellent facilities at cvg: the newest runway for instance has to be tempting. plus, i've heard that Delta still has to pay fees/expenses for all those empty faci9lites - you would think since they have no further interest in cvg as a hub, they would want to shed those costs and sell them to other airlines. maybe not all of them in case their business model changes...

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  18. A lot of history through this airport. I bet the demolition services in Cincinnati OH. Had to do some extra precautions with this one. Thanks again for all the info!

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  19. Cheap air tickets are offered round the timer; even for the end minute travelers it becomes easier as you can be positive that cheap flights to BOM can found every day.

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  20. Thank you Ronnie for documenting an important past chapter for the region.

    Regarding Delta's lease keeping out other carriers, that would be against federal law, which prohibits airports from keeping out any new carriers. Their agreement does keep the Airport Board from spending airport money--much of which comes from the airlines, mostly Delta--to actively market other carriers to come here. Meanwhile a NK group has formed to do just that, not that it will matter much--the airlines know we are here. So keeping carriers from having access to our ample supply of gates, and runways is not the problem.

    Our problem is much worse than that, it is about a lack of demand. In this new lean airline industry, hubs in medium-sized communities no longer make sense. It doesn't matter what our supply is. Pittsburgh, St.Louis, Memphis, Cincinnati have all lost their hubs for the same reason. There are exceptions such as Charlotte and Salt Lake, but there are specific reasons that make them "special". Yes, there will be some new flights at CVG over time, but nothing drastic.

    We need to get used to the fact that we are back to being just another regional airport, maybe we need to change the name back to Greater Cincinnati Airport.

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    1. Ironically, Charlotte will inevitably be the big loser in the American/US Airways merger. Wonder how Fernando Aguirre and Chiquita feel ab that move now. Really though, the airport issue was just an excuse. They got a sweet incentive package from the state of NC if I recall correctly.

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