Delta hub staying in Cincinnati, trimming flights

— -- Delta Air Lines plans to cut 12% of its flying out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in January, but says it is restructuring the hub here to make it more profitable and therefore sustainable though at least next year.

Glen Hauenstein, Delta's executive vice president charged with meshing Delta's network with that of its new merger acquisition Northwest Airlines, said in an interview that the airline is committed to keeping a hub here through at least 2009.

"We really wanted to keep the hub there because of its location, layout and the great facilities, but it took us awhile to figure out how to do it," Hauenstein said. "So Delta is now reaffirming its commitment to the Cincinnati hub through the summer season of next year and then we'll take another barometer reading on how the economy is doing.

"This is the foundation to build upon, and I think the biggest (profit) improvement in all of Delta next year is going to be Cincinnati."

The new plan calls for ending service to only one city and trimming about 40 flights a day at CVG. The 263 flights remaining flights, however, will be bunched more closely together as the airline synchronizes its schedules among its other six hubs nationally.

Hauenstein would not commit on what the new structure could mean for employment at the airport as airlines nationally are expected to pare back after the holidays to cope with the economic downturn. But he said that the new schedule will be even more labor intensive, possibly protecting existing jobs. Still, Delta's Erlanger-based regional subsidiary Comair will see layoffs due to the flight cuts even though regional flying will make up more of the local operation.

Delta currently employs about 2,500 locally and Comair has 3,100 local workers. The local regional airline, which does the majority of the Cincinnati flying for Delta, is laying off an additional 150 pilot layoffs early next year due to the latest flight reductions, a company official said Wednesday.

That's on top of 330 previously announced layoffs of pilots and flight attendants that started last month as overall flying in Cincinnati will be down 33% in January as compared with January 2008. Comair employs about 5,800 total, including 1,300 pilots and 800 flight attendants.

All told, Delta's regional carriers, including Comair, will fly about 85% of the 263 departures at Cincinnati planned for January, which will be down from the current 300 flights.

Delta officials declined comment on system-wide reductions for Delta, which is merging its operations with that of Minneapolis-based Northwest. The merger, which was completed last month, creates the world's largest airline. Delta, which now has seven hubs after the merger, has planned a news conference for later today to announce its overall scheduling plans for January when its winter schedule begins.

Overall, most U.S. airlines are reducing capacity after the holidays, with even normally profitable low-cost carrier Southwest cutting 5% out of its schedule in January.

When Delta's new schedule goes into effect locally, the airport will keep all of its current destinations except Austin, Texas, making the new total 91.

However, the summertime flight to Rome could be in jeopardy due to the economic slowdown, while daily frequencies to such cities as Asheville, N.C, Columbus, and Seattle will be reduced. Delta officials declined to provide more specifics about frequency cutbacks elsewhere.

"This is good news in that it keeps things pretty much as they are, but I would not say it is wonderful news," said Lawson Walker II, chairman of the Kenton County Airport Board, which oversees CVG's operations. "Wonderful news would be adding more planes. Still, this is good for the business traveler and we can still say we have the hub."

Walker said he and other board members are trying to schedule a meeting later this month with top Delta brass to discuss not only current local levels of air service, but also the issue of local air fares. The Transportation Department recently ranked Cincinnati as having the highest air fares in the nation for the second quarter 2008, a distinction the local airport has owned for most of the last decade due in part to Delta's dominance here.

The new structure at Cincinnati will shrink the number of "banks" — or sets of incoming and outgoing flights that are synchronized to maximize connections — from nine to five. Hauenstein said that the new schedule will be coordinated with that of the Northwest hub in Detroit to avoid competition and complement each hub's strengths.

"That way we can offer two medium-sized hubs with better connectivity and efficiency to compete with one mega-hub (for rivals American and United) in Chicago," Hauenstein said. "This is all about connections and making those more plentiful. Now we can offer a traveler in say, Albany, connections through Atlanta, JFK, Detroit, Minneapolis and yes, Cincinnati — you get something nobody has been able to offer you before. And Cincinnati is a part of all of that."

The Cincinnati Enquirer is owned by Gannett, parent company of USA TODAY.