Kentucky's Thoroughbred: Cincinnati continues to shine among hubs

Managing Airports Today

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

Kentucky's Thoroughbred
Cincinnati continues to shine among hubs; many say the director is largely responsible

COVINGTON , KY — The headline is, of course, a double entendre — it has a double meaning. There is the airport, Cincinnati/Greater Kentucky International ( CVG ), which among U.S. hubs is a shining star, dominated by Delta, regional carrier Comair, and DHL, the German-based express package carrier, which all hub here. And there is the director, Robert F. Holscher, a native son who has gone from fireman to ops manager to director, a position he's held since 1975. As he nears retirement, Holscher's airport is poised to play an even more important role in the changing landscape that is the U.S. air transportation system.

Delta’s tail is a dominant sight at CVG. Delta and Delta-owned Comair account for more than 90 percent of airport traffic.

CVG is operated by the independent Kenton County Airport Board, with 18 members appointed by various governmental authorities in the region. Board chair John S. Domaschko relates that to appreciate the success that the airport has attained in recent years requires a clear understanding of the role the director, Holscher, has played.

"Bob's management style is very much based on building a good team and letting them do what they do well," he says, "and ever so gently guiding them when they need guidance.

"The good news about Bob and his staff is that all of the opportunities offered by Delta, Comair, and DHL to have a hub here have been maximized and optimized by the staff of CVG . I don't ever feel that there's been an opportunity missed because we don't have the firepower on our staff."

Ted Bushelman, the director of communications since before Holscher first arrived at CVG , relates that the director started as a fireman out of the U.S. Air Force. After working his way up to fire chief, he moved into operations, later becoming the ops director. In 1975, he was named airport director.

"I quickly learned, here's one smart cookie," says Bushelman, 67.

"I would have retired two years ago, but when I went into Bob and said, ’Bob, it's time for me to retire,' he got up from his desk — he's younger than I am by five years — walked over, looked down at me and said, ’Listen, son, you'll leave when I leave."

It is the straightforward, human, work ethic in Holscher that comes through, in the words of Bushelman and Domaschko. And compassion, reflected in the fact that no person has been laid off during his tenure.

The airport operates under a residual agreement with carriers, most notably Delta, which has made significant infrastructure financial investments through the years. As a result, the carriers drive financial decisionmaking at the airport.

According to Bushelman, airline demands for reduced budgets at the airport led to financial paring without the need for anyone losing a job. "Bob said, ’We're going to cut our budget very, very deeply; I'm not laying one person off.' And he didn't," recalls Bushelman.

When asked about his primary concerns about aviation today, Holscher says, "The thing that concerns me is customer service. I'm worried that as we see the cutbacks in the airlines we can't lose sight of that customer. They're going through a lot with security hassles; let's not take any more of that customer service away from them than we have to.

Relates Bushelman, "Another thing you have here because of Holscher: When a snowflake falls, there's $5 million worth of equipment on that runway. He believes you have to keep your airport open.

"It's great to hear the maintenance guys talking. Somebody will do something a little special and he'll say, ’That's one for grandma.' That means, somebody flying in here — meaning a grandma — does not have to land at some other airport and get lost."

STILL GROWING

Numbers for CVG are positive for 2003, with 8 percent passenger growth and some 14 percent for cargo. While still not at 2000 levels — 2001 was affected by both 9/11 and the Comair work stoppage — the upward trend is expected to continue, much of it tied to Comair's success in serving the mid-section of the country using RJs.

The airport is in the midst of building a third north/south parallel runway, while extending its crosswind 2,000 feet (to 12,000 feet) to broaden its direct service reach to Eastern Europe and Asia .

Its three terminals have been fitted with fully in-line, integrated baggage screening systems, ahead of most of the industry. And it is in the midst of a $25 million expansion of its concessions, which will help Holscher continue to achieve two ongoing goals: customer service and reduced costs to airlines.

He explains, "We run a lean machine. Our costs are low — less than $4 per enplaned passenger, and we farm out much of our janitorial, maintenance, etc.

"A study ATA did on us years ago said we're the lowest cost airport in the snow belt. We cross-utilize our people frequently."

POSITIONED FOR TODAY

In a way, the Cincinnati /Greater Kentucky International Airport has turned into a microcosm of where the aviation industry is headed in the 21st Century. It has a major hub carrier, perhaps the most significant regional carrier (Comair) providing air transportation access to small communities, and a global cargo carrier as its major tenants. In terms of positioning, CVG appears to be in an enviable position among hubs in the central U.S. — American is pulling back at St. Louis ; US Airways is debating with Pittsburgh about its future role there; and America West is pulling out of Columbus (OH).

Says Holscher, "It looks to me that Cincinnati should be a survivor. I would think that if the others continue to pull down, Cincinnati could end up in a very nice position. It's not only an east/west hub, it's a north/south hub."

At the same time, there's growing concern about small community access to the aviation system, supposedly the hub's reason for being. At Cincinnati , small community access is at the core of the hub's success.

"In order to serve these smaller communities you're going to continue to have hubs," comments Holscher. "It's not only domestic cities; our European service has been rather successful. Comair has certainly been a feeder of that international service."

While many cite Holscher's leadership for much of CVG 's success, he points to his professional staff who are well trained in their respective disciplines, and his independent airport board.

"Sometimes you have to act a little more quickly than a city, county, or state will allow you to act," he says. "By having an authority that is well-informed, abreast of this business, they've been able to respond quickly and efficiently, and have been able to keep us on top."

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