In the last issue of Cincy Business, the magazine initiated a discussion about the airport board that directs policy at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. In this issue, we take a direct look at who and what is the Kenton County Airport Board, and how it came about:

It's hard to imagine a more bizarre political creature than the Kenton County Airport Board.

It's a board that appears to the general public to be neither clearly public or clearly private. Half the board members don't get a vote at the monthly public meeting. And, despite its Kenton County moniker, it's an organization that manages an entity located squarely in neighboring Boone County.

It's the airport board. Just because.

The oddities that created the airport board are closely intertwined with the history of CVG itself (CVG standing for Covington, which"”in hindsight"”is a seemingly bizarre designation for the Tristate's international airport).

The story behind how Kenton County government controls the power structure, and the board's votes, goes all the way back to William Steinfort and his 100-acre farm in Boone County. As part of the war effort, Steinfort turned over his pastures to the U.S. Army Air Force, which acquired adjacent land and built a 928-acre landing field to train B-17 bomber pilots. The first B-17 didn't land until Aug. 15, 1944, near the end of the war. By September of 1945, the military declared the airfield surplus and up for sale.

Because Boone County was still mostly rural farmland and had no political structure capable of pulling off such an endeavor, Kenton County nabbed the airfield in a military surplus bonanza. Few could have imagined, through a series of historical quirks and hiccups, that a strictly regional airport"”Boone County Airline was the only carrier flying here"”could develop into the entire region's international airport.

A mere accident of geography played a major role: In 1946, the Big 3 of American, Delta and TWA"”frustrated by constant floods and fogging"”pulled their operations out of "Sunken Lunken" airport and evacuated to Boone County. An American DC 3 was the first major carrier to land on the Kentucky side of the river.

Early on, Ohioans began making noises about achieving voting membership in running this regional asset. Even former Kenton County Judge Executive Rodney "Biz" Cain endorsed the concept"”albeit just one single full-voting seat for Ohio at the table"”but he left office with the task undone.

Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton stepped in on Dec. 16, 1998, issuing an executive order creating an advisory panel "to ensure the inclusion of representative citizens from Boone and Campbell counties and Cincinnati and Hamilton County, so as to allow additional input for a more meaningful representative governance." The order was weak, since those additional advisory members have no vote in full session.

There seems to be some confusion about who appoints members. The charter says the governor, but Gov. Ernie Fletcher's office confirms he's appointed only one: Richard Knock. "The Kenton County board and Louisville airport authority are the only two in the state to which the governor makes appointments," clarifies Jodi Whitaker, the governor's press secretary. "He has one on the Kenton County board."

The noise for equal representation on the Ohio side got louder in the 1990s, as the Kenton County agency began making runway decisions affecting residents of Delhi Township. By the year 2000, the Boone County Planning Commission, Delhi Township and the Kenton board were all engaged in a fray on a new north-south runway, noise abatement and home buyout programs (a nasty engagement that prompted Delhi Trustee Ron Kruse to call members of the Boone planning commission "puppets" of the airport board. "You don't see any noise over Kenton County, do you?" fumed Kruse, noting all board members with full voting power lived in Kenton).

JET BLUES
Now the controversy over who should run the airport comes full swing to the current day. As reported in the first part of this series ("Up, Up & Away," Oct./Nov.), the stance of some Hamilton County politicians is the international airport is a regional asset that should be operated by a regional coalition, that the current board has encouraged the climate of outrageous airfares by allowing Delta a virtual monopoly. Ohio elected officials such as Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune and County Auditor Dusty Rhodes suggest too much power is in the hands of one man: Kenton County Judge Executive Ralph Drees, who personally appoints all voting members to the airport board.

For his part, Drees has this comment on the first installment of this story (in which Rhodes amply criticized his appointments on the "provincial" airport board as Drees' "luncheon buddies"): "It was kind of amusing. I go to lunch, but not with anyone from the airport board," responds Drees.

"He's been complaining forever," continues Drees of Rhodes. "He doesn't care about jobs. He just pisses and moans, but there's not a damn thing new about him."

At least one airport insider suggests the airport board really isn't in charge, at all:
"What you have to understand about us is, the airport administration does not represent the airport board, nor does the board represent the administration," observes an airport insider who contacted Cincy Business after Part I appeared. "These are two different bodies that intersect once a month [at the public meeting]."

TERMINAL BOREDOM
Ah, the public meeting.
The meeting time and location of the airport board is public knowledge, though few would find it appealing to spend an evening wading through the minutia of airport operations. A recent meeting included a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of a Dunkin' Donuts cart in the air terminal.

Sampling a typical airport board meeting is a bit like indulging in a buffet of boredom. Nearly two dozen CEOs, including Fifth Third's George Schaefer and Huff Realty CEO James Huff, sit around a massive board table on the second floor of Terminal 1. (If you're inclined to attend a meeting, hang a left at the U.S. Air luggage counter and proceed up the escalator. Your $5 parking in the Terminal 1 lot can be validated.)

To describe the 5 p.m. meeting"”held every third Monday of the month"”as monotonous is to suggest a 747 is one big airplane. The airport board, after all, is running what equates to a small city, with its own police and fire departments, shops, even a chapel.

An inch-thick "bluebook" agenda, heavy enough to give the average flight attendant a hernia, is distributed. Between lobs, the board members exchange views over an advertising strategy for airport parking lots, the purchase of new school lockers for St. Aloysius, the grade of sand purchased for the coming year, and other riveting topics. When conversation finally turns to the 500-pound elephant in the agenda"”the fate of bankrupt Delta and its feeder airline, Comair"”the meeting adjourns into "executive session." Meaning goodbye, glad you came, be sure to stop at the gift shop on your way out.

EARTH TO TOWER
The only public comment issued at this meeting regarding what the future holds for Delta"”and, by extension, the airport"”is a board member's assurance that all will be well "as soon as they come out of bankruptcy" (begging the question whether it's "when" or "if" Delta emerges).

(Through the airport public relations staff, each airport board member was given a letter on Cincy Business stationery, urging them to contact us to provide comment for this article. None did.)

One former board member, Joseph M. Allen, who has been off the airport commission for a year, chose to weigh in. "I agree with many of [Dusty Rhodes'] concerns, but strongly disagree with the quote, 'I'm not sure anyone is looking at the minutes, or if Hamilton County's representatives even show up to the Kenton County Airport Board meetings'."

Allen says he represented Hamilton County as well as possible, given the weight of the board in Kenton County's favor: "I spent hundreds of hours representing the interests of western Hamilton County as best as I could. An advisory board member can only do so much because they do not have a vote at the board meetings." Allen, who works for Development Planning Inc. surveyors, describes himself alternately as being "a lone voice" and "broken record" for the Ohio side of the river, especially on the topics of runway expansion, night noise and sound insulation for Sayler Park and Delhi schools, where flyover noise is an issue.

HOW OTHERS COMPARE
Across the nation, airport boards operate as diversely as there are groups that control them. In Des Moines, city council appoints an all-citizen board. In Seattle, it's the Zoning Commission. At Dallas-Fort Worth, the power is divided between the two cities. In Akron, the airport is run by the state as an "authority" (the only such state-run airport in Ohio).
Many boards, such as Orland'™s, routinely publish their meeting minutes"”including board member attendance records"”and future agendas on their web sites, a particularly cooperative and public-spirited approach. Some also publish bylaws, clarifying how and when board members can be removed"”and who is authorized to do so. (A common reason for dismissal is spotty attendance.) One Tennessee airport web site even publishes the home addresses and phone numbers of board members.

Most notable, perhaps, is the presence of professional representatives of the aviation industry on many boards, or at the least, professional pilots. In Duluth, the president of the board is the director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In Reno, the chairman is a retired FAA air traffic control supervisor. (Interestingly, one state of Kentucky document related to the appointment of Kenton Board advisory members states all such members must be connected in some way to the aeronautics industry. Those aeronautic connections are not immediately clear in some of the recent appointments.)

FLYING BLIND
According to the latest study, a Sabre Airlines Solutions report published in September, some 1,500 passengers daily"”or 18 percent of all Tristate air travelers"”drive to neighboring metro airports to catch a flight. That's a half million people annually who hike over to any of five other airports.

The reason? CVG is Delta's second largest hub, which the company claims is the cause of the sky-high airfares in Cincinnati. It's the price of a hub doing business, of having international non-stop service and more direct domestic flights at our beck-and-call.

Substitute the word "hub" with "stranglehold," and you see a different picture. A just-released "Statistics Air Fare Index" by the Bureau of Transportation reports that the cost of flying out of Cincinnati is the highest it's been in 11 years, and that ticket prices here rose faster this year than at any other American airport (the average CVG round-trip is $536).

Critics claim the Delta monopoly has forced other, less expensive carriers under by fixing its prices to compete, then raising its fares once the alternative carrier has been run out of town. Currently, just eight carriers serve Cincinnati, while a much-smaller Dayton has a choice of nine, Columbus has 12  (including the popular discount airline JetBlue), and Indianapolis an equally hearty 12.

Officials at the airport maintain the search is on for more airlines and more competitive fares. "It takes forever sometimes to get somebody to give you flights," comments airport spokesperson Ted Bushelman. "We will continue in the new year to talk to new airlines."

And until then? Consider the highway billboard that just popped up on a local interstate, part of an ad campaign launched by Louisville International Airport. The sign says it all in just four words: "Lower Fares 98 Miles."
Read 'em and weep.