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.
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.
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.
|- The hallway of Terminal 1 has been relegated to storage.|
|- Since Terminal 1 is the airport's original terminal, passengers actually boarded planes via stairs on the tarmac instead of using modern jetway ramps.|
|- Old chairs in Terminal 1.|
|- Faded USAirways logo on an upper floor of Terminal 1.|
|- 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.
|- 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.
|- Murals and an unused baggage claim.|
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.
|- The underbelly of CVG.|
We rose back to the surface and proceeded to our next stop, past more forgotten ticket counters and luggage carousels to abandoned offices.
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.
|- The abandoned Delta Crown Room.|
|- Alcohol left on the Crown Room bar.|
|- 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.
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.
For more information on CVG, check out Jake Mecklenborg's article over at Urban Cincy.