Delta closing Concourse C operations at Cincinnati

HEBRON, Ky. -- Delta Air Lines said Tuesday that it would close its operations at Concourse C at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in January.

While the change is emblematic of Delta's struggles to contain costs as jet fuel remains sky-high, the carrier noted the move also will end inconvenient shuttle rides by bus between Concourse C and other locations.

The shift, which will begin this fall, will concentrate Delta's local departures and arrivals at 58 total gates in concourses A and B after years of cutting in the number of flights here. The airline said it was still committed to Cincinnati (airport code CVG) as a hub, although some analysts are skeptical.

Delta disclosed this summer that it would cut CVG's fall schedule by about a quarter from fall 2007 to combat fuel prices that have doubled in the past year.

Airline officials said the switch won't affect local Delta jobs. Comair officials said the change would have little impact on its work force, without providing more specifics.

Don Bornhorst, senior vice president of Delta Connection, which coordinates its regional carriers including Erlanger, Ky.-based Comair, said Delta remained committed to the local hub.

"Fuel is ... haunting the industry and putting intense pressure on carriers" to drop unprofitable flights, he said. "We're happy we've been able to make these changes and preserve the hub."

Delta's move will leave Concourse C empty, although the airline will continue to pay rent on its lease of the 48 gates until 2025.

"Airports and hubs across the country are seeing this — airlines aren't expanding, they're pulling back," airport spokesman Ted Bushelman said.

Spencer Dickerson, senior executive vice president of the International Association of Airport Executives, an Arlington, Va.-based industry group, agreed: "Nobody's immune" to such cuts.

Bushelman said the 23 restaurants and shops at Concourse C will close but added that most are owned by franchisees that operate shops elsewhere at the airport. He said store operators could see many of their customers and some of their employees shifted over to remaining stores.

Experts say cutbacks by even star performer Southwest Airlines show how tough pricey fuel has made it for carriers to turn a profit. The Dallas-based low-cost carrier Tuesday announced a 6% reduction in its winter schedule.

Delta officials noted that CVG remains the third-largest hub in the Midwest behind Chicago-O'Hare and Detroit. They said that even with the cuts, CVG will have direct service to 80% of the destinations served by O'Hare, which serves a metropolitan area more than four times the size of this one.

Delta said it will operate 298 flights on peak days this fall out of CVG to 93 destinations, a 26.6% reduction from 406 flights to 115 destinations in the same period last year.

Doug Moormann, vice president of economic development at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, said local business leaders are concerned about potential job losses as Delta makes "difficult choices." Still, he was encouraged that more service cuts weren't announced.

"Given the environment with high fuel prices, we're always concerned about future cuts," he said. "One of the region's great assets (in attracting new and retaining existing businesses) is the nonstop service out of CVG."

Bornhorst said the announcement had no relationship to Delta's pending acquisition of rival Northwest Airlines.

Throughout the merger process, Delta officials have insisted that they don't plan to eliminate hubs.

Ernest Arvai, an aviation strategist and consultant in Windham, N.H., estimates that Delta could cut service out of CVG another 15% after the merger. He said a combined Delta-Northwest won't need six U.S. hubs, especially with Detroit, Cincinnati and Memphis relatively close together.

"Memphis will be the first to go, Cincinnati might become a mini-hub, but Detroit will be the ultimate winner," he said, explaining that Detroit has a newer terminal and the largest population to support traffic. "This (Delta announcement) is another step in the process."

While acknowledging that the shift is happening as Delta offers fewer local flights, Bornhorst said local customers would get better service. He said the amenities at Concourses A and B are superior with Crown Rooms for frequent travelers as well as jetways to protect passengers from the elements. To get on planes at Concourse C, passengers walk outside.

Bornhorst said Delta's lease permits other carriers to use the gates at Concourse C. Whether new competitors might rush to fill the void is unclear, as most major carriers are cutting back domestic service to combat fuel costs.

"Those are common-use gates — we're not in a position to tell the airport what carriers can come into those gates," he said.

Even though fewer flights this fall at CVG will mean less landing-fee and other revenues, Delta and other airlines remain obligated to pay off the airport's debt for the $19.5 million facility, Bushelman said. The remaining $11 million debt on Concourse C is scheduled to be paid off by 2015.

Bushelman said the airport's contract with the carriers requires them to cover CVG's costs, including debt payments.

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