Five years of jet fuel spikes, expensive and intrusive security upgrades and unrelenting competition have left the airline industry bruised but not beaten. In fact, maybe"”just maybe"”better times lie ahead in 2007 thanks to lower fuel prices and the anticipated end of painful restructuring that has resulted in lower costs for Delta Air Lines and its competitors.
Positive business news for the airlines could spell some welcome stability for business travelers, says Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant and owner of Boyd Group.

"Airlines will be making money in 2007 unless we see oil prices going back up over $70 a barrel," he suggests. "Fares won't drop, but there may be some additional air service."

Greater Cincinnati business travelers should have more options for international travel through Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, more domestic flights out of Dayton International and a rapidly growing choice of charter flights from the Tristate's general aviation airports.

On the downside, 2007 will begin with far fewer flights out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport after a year of reductions at Delta. The airline, which expects to complete its bankruptcy reorganization in the first half of 2007, slashed departures out of the airport by 40 percent as of September, compared to September 2005, according to the airport.

Delta, Comair and other Delta connections averaged 343 daily departures in September compared to 580 a year earlier. All other airlines combined flew 57 daily departures out of the airport.

Despite the cuts, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport still offers far more non-stop flights to more destinations than all other regional airports combined, including Dayton, Columbus, Louisville and Indianapolis.

Betsy Talton, a Delta spokeswoman, says the airline has no plans to make any other cuts to air service from the Hebron airport in the coming year. "The schedule 2005 restructuring Delta completed in Cincinnati was successful, and right now we think the hub is the right size for the market."

Overall, business travelers looking to save a buck on the large commercial carriers probably won't see prices fall, but for travelers looking for more flights to more destinations faster, 2007 promises to be a better year.
Here's a look at what's happening at five airports big and small throughout the Tristate.

Cincinnati/Northern

Kentucky International Airport
Northern Kentucky-based Comair is fighting for its life through a competition to continue serving as a Delta Connection carrier. If Comair loses the bidding, it would be replaced by a rival carrier. From the traveler's point of view, the outcome of the competition will have little effect. Either Comair or a rival will operate the same number of flights for Delta at about the same price, according to Delta officials and other airline industry experts.

Delta has beefed up its international flight service at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport as well as connecting service through New York and Atlanta.

The airport has more services up its sleeve to entice travelers to keep flying. Several enhanced services will be offered for a full year for the first time, including valet parking. The airport-owned long-term lot recently signed an operating contract with ValuPark, which now picks up and drops off customers right at their cars.

The airport also added a so-called cell-phone lot where drivers who are picking up arriving travelers can park for free and wait for their passengers to call to be picked up.

Ted Bushelman, airport spokesman, says the airport is continuing its uphill fight to entice more airlines to do business at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport. Delta, which has its second-largest hub at the airport, continues to operate nearly 90 percent of flights there and charge top dollar for the privilege.

In June, Delta's BusinessElite service on international flights will include more comfortable seats with all-leather coverings and improved leg rests. BusinessElite will also include new menu options from celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein on-demand personal screens with loaded with more than 20 first-run and classic movies, plus TV programs, music and a dozen video games.

Reconfigured 767-400 and 777-200 aircraft will give economy-class passengers some new perks on international and long-haul domestic flights, including leather seats and in-seat video screens.

"We've enhanced international economy class with printed menus, all leather seats, a complimentary cocktail and a special amenity kit. This applies to Delta's international flights, including non-stop flights from Cincinnati to destinations such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris and Rome," Delta's Talton says.

There are changes afoot beyond those aloft. On the ground, the new Sheraton Cincinnati Airport is the only hotel on airport grounds, notes Carol Cooper of the Sheraton. The 177-room Sheraton, which opened in October, features a restaurant, Bistro Danielle, as well as a huge flat-screen reader board which flashes CVG flight delays and weather forecasts, says Cooper.

Dayton International Airport
Dayton has picked up some of the slack from the reduced schedule at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport. AirTran was scheduled to add a non-stop flight to Tampa by the end of 2006.

Frontier Airline has upgraded its two non-stop flights to Denver from regional jets to roomier Airbus jets and added a sixth non-stop flight to Atlanta.

Delta has added nonstop service to Boston; Continental added non-stops to Houston and Newark; United Airlines increased the number of flights to Chicago and Washington-Dulles; and U.S. Airways upgraded its non-stop service to Philadelphia with 70-seat jets instead of 50-seat aircraft.

"We continue to see changes from our airlines that are certainly benefiting our customers," says Sharon Sears, a Dayton airport spokeswoman.

The airport continues to sell itself to Greater Cincinnati travelers as a cheaper alternative and a fast place to fly through. "Once you get in the building, there are no trams to catch and no moving sidewalks. It's just through the checkpoint and to the gate."

Dayton averages 90 daily departures to 20 destinations.

Lunken Airport
Cincinnati's own general aviation airport has seen the number of flights decrease since 2005. Its 40,000 departures through mid-October were slightly down from 2005, according to Fred Anderton, the airport manager.

He says high fuel prices dampened demand and increased fuel efficiency has eliminated the need for many small aircraft to stop and refuel on long hauls.

Still, Lunken continues to be a valuable alternative for business and leisure travelers who are willing to pay extra for the convenience of charter service.

"We'll continue to focus on the corporate markets and providing a good service for them," Anderton adds.
Anderton is hopeful that the downward trend will reverse in 2007, pointing to the emergence of the first commercial Very Light Jets on the market. The four-to-six passenger jets made by Cirrus and others are far more affordable than larger jets at prices that range from $1.3 million to $3 million. Anderton expects the jets to increase business at small airports for years to come as businesses embrace them.

Charter business is expected to grow at Lunken through Executive Jet Management, which has experienced double-digit growth for five years running.

"We expect to have continual growth, and we expect the business travel to grow as well," says Jeff Cropper, senior vice president of Executive Jet. "Our corporate aviation charter business was considered something that the top people only were able to do. But we're discovering that middle managers are now taking advantage of the service."

He adds that many business travelers put a high value on time savings that charter flights provide. "Charter is more expensive than airlines, obviously, and I think it will always be that way. But people are factoring in the time convenience. I think it's the realization on the part of businesses themselves what a smart tool it is."

Executive Jet has six jets based at Lunken but plans to keep growing. "I'm certain in 2007 we'll be adding several more airplanes to the Cincinnati area," Cropper notes. The fastest growing segment? Personal leisure travel, he says.

Blue Ash Airport
The city of Blue Ash is the new owner of Blue Ash Airport. The airport was owned by the City of Cincinnati until last month, but Blue Ash bought it for $37.5 million for a park, performing arts center and hotel. The deal was contingent upon Blue Ash voters approving a payroll tax increase to fund the purchase in the November elections. At press time, airport operators were waiting to see how the vote went.

If the plan goes into effect, the airport will be reconfigured, including the relocation of taxiways and ramps. Anderton, who is also director of the Blue Ash airport, says an engineering consultant will be hired to offer advice on how to redesign the airport.

Butler County Regional Airport
The Hamilton airport is growing, with two new hangars under construction and two more being considered by area companies.

The airport, which is owned by the Butler County Commission, is extending a taxiway to accommodate the growth. About 30,000 departures occur annually.

Ron Davis, the airport administrator, says flights have been growing steadily since the airport installed a precision approach electronic guidance system in 2002.

An added incentive for customers was the addition of Roberts Aviation in 2003. The company performs on-site turbine maintenance.

Davis says 314 aircraft are based at the airport.

Butler's airport is home to www.share-a-charter.net, a fast-growing Internet-based company that is designed to be a one-stop shop for business travelers who need to fly. Joe Conrad, the owner and founder of the company, says his business owns or has access to planes and jets of many sizes, allowing him to pair customers with the most cost-efficient plane for the size of the party and length of the trip.

"We just deal with anybody who calls and we find them any kind of aircraft charters. We talk to the people, see what they really need. If they're only going 200 miles away and they have three people, there's no reason to put them in a 12-seat jet," he notes.

Conrad says the formula is working. "Business is really growing. We can have the charter originate at whatever airport they want, whether it's Lunken or Warren or Butler."

Share-a-charter is adding a 12-passenger Jetstream to its fleet. It also has more than 500 members who are emailed offers of empty seats on planes that are taking off around the country and the world.