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.
"Our forecasts continue to call for growth of 3.5 percent a year, with the system handling more than 1 billion passengers a year by 2015," Sturgell said. "And if you look at the industry over time, there are always new carriers, especially since deregulation."
William Robinson III, chairman of the Kenton County Airport Board, said that even if Delta were to downsize even more drastically locally, the new runway would make the airport even more attractive for new competition - a sore spot with many local travelers whose fares are much higher than the national average because of Delta's dominance.
"The better air service an airport can provide, the better chance it has to attract new carriers, and you couple our low landing fees with our increased capacity, and we have a better story to tell when we go out and sell ourselves to all airlines, including the discount carriers," Robinson said.
The Associated Press contributed. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
BY THE NUMBERS
About the runway
Cost: $250 million.
Scheduled opening date: Dec. 22.
Dimensions: 8,000 feet long; 150 feet wide; concrete 18 inches deep.
Land acquired: 700-plus acres at $80 million (several parcels have yet to be bought) .
Materials used: 10.4 million cubic yards of dirt were moved and leveled to smooth the runway path - equivalent to piling dirt on a football field and having the pile reach 6,038 feet high, or five times the height of the Empire State Building. 280,000 cubic yards of concrete (for runways and taxiways) - equivalent to paving two lanes of 12-inch thick highway for 60 miles.
Distinguishing feature: Located far enough from the other two north-south runways to be operated independently (allowing takeoffs and landings regardless of what is happening elsewhere).
The Enquirer/Steven M. Herppich
A crowd gathers on the new runway Thursday at the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati International Airport to watch a series of sky divers land with the American, Ohio and Kentucky flags. The new runway is scheduled to open in December.
The Enquirer/Steven M. Herppich
Sky divers land during a dedication ceremony Thursday at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport for the new north-south runway.
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