HEBRON - With the financial future of their main tenants in question, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport officials officially dedicated a new runway Thursday.
Airport and Federal Aviation Administration officials say the $250 million project will be justified during the next few years - and in fact is needed now, even in light of Delta Air Lines' bankruptcy.
"A runway is a long-term project and investment for the future," FAA Deputy Administrator Robert A. Sturgell said in an interview before the ceremony. "And even though Delta may be cutting its schedule in December, they will be packing more flights into a shorter period of time, meaning capacity will be at a premium."
The new north-south runway is scheduled to go into use Dec. 22, after new air-traffic procedures are worked out and the new layout of the airport is published and updated in national maps and charts.
But because of potential weather problems, airport officials had the ceremony more than two months in advance, using sky divers to cut a large ribbon held across the concrete by two firetrucks.
The event occurred as Atlanta-based Delta and its Erlanger subsidiary, Comair, slog through the bankruptcy process.
The two operate Delta's second-largest hub locally and control more than 93 percent of the traffic here.
Delta has lost almost $10 billion in the last four years, and both Delta and Comair plan to cut 26 percent of flights locally.
But in restructuring its schedule here, Delta will be putting more flights into "banks," or closely scheduled groups of flights, meaning the potential for more congestion during peak hours.
Local airport officials say the new runway will help that congestion as well as help airlines conserve fuel by cutting taxi times as well as take-off and landing delays. An estimate done earlier this year showed that the runway could save up to $200 million in fuel in the first year.
Still, the local flight cuts will affect up to 1,000 jobs, mostly local, including 350 at Comair.
Delta and Comair combined employ about 8,000 locally while the airport as a whole generates about 15,000 direct jobs among airlines, concessionaires and service companies.
Wednesday, Comair president Fred Buttrell told the airline's workers that even more cuts in pay, work force and flights could be announced as soon as next week.
Then Thursday, Delta chief executive officer Gerald Grinstein said that if Delta's pilots union didn't agree to negotiate $325 million worth of cuts - including a 19.5 percent pay cut - he was prepared to ask the bankruptcy judge to nullify the existing contract. Pilots already gave up $1 billion worth of cuts, including a 32.5 percent pay cut, last fall.
"We've asked them, but they've not been willing to consent," Grinstein said.
Some non-union workers took a 10 percent pay cut Jan. 1, with cuts of between 7 percent and 9 percent for most front-liners coming Nov. 1.
The new runway was paid for in part through a $131 million grant from the federal government and by per-passenger fees collected on each trip through the airport.
Airport executive director Bob Holscher said the airport has a debt level of $330 million, including insured bonds taken out for the runway that are to be paid back using the federal money and the fees.
"But it won't come to that," Holscher said.
"Even if Delta were to cut further, we will be able to meet those obligations."
Delta included Comair in its filing Sept. 14, the same day that Northwest Airlines filed for Chapter 11 protection. That put more than half of the domestic airline capacity in bankruptcy, with US Airways and United Airlines still trying to get out.
But Sturgell said that even considering the financial straits of major carriers, demand for air travel will not abate and that more capacity will be needed nationwide. He said six more runways would open in the next six years nationwide, including one set to open next spring in Atlanta - the site of Delta's largest operation.
A study into steps that the airport can take to lessen the impact of aircraft noise, especially at night, will take another 18 months.
Comair has proposed cutting new workers' starting salaries, instead of freezing flight attendants' pay, so the airline can buy more planes and attract new business.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport will continue with its master plan that could call for a new runway in 20 years or so.
The pilots have authorized union leaders to call a strike if Comair throws out their contract and imposes $15.8 million in annual concessions.