Dusty Rhodes comes tearing at you like a windshear.

The mere fact that the longtime Hamilton County Auditor is candid, to-the-point and immensely quotable certainly comes as no surprise, and this instance"”a rant on Delta's airfares"”is no exception.

If anyone is to blame (for outrageous airfares), it's the airport board. One small outfit controlling a regional asset is a problem," Rhodes is telling his audience at the conference table, the fervor obvious in his voice. "It's a very provincial board, made up of Ralph Drees and his luncheon buddies."

The occasion for this brutally frank exchange is a recent meeting between auditor Rhodes, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, and the editorial board of Cincy Business. The pair had been invited to explain their idea for a county-encouraged luxury motorcoach airport service, an agenda that received scant attention (a few buried paragraphs) in the Cincinnati Enquirer even as the rival Cincinnati Post splashed it across page one, the lead headline story of the day.

While it definitely wouldn't be notable for two Greater Cincinnati officials to propose a taxi shuttle service to our own international airport, Rhodes and Portune are describing a service that's exactly the opposite. This shuttle would run to other international airports in other cities"”airports that offer lower fares than CVG"”sending Hamilton County passengers and their potential ticket-buying power to Dayton, Columbus, Indy and beyond.

The plan is simple: Give a lift to local business travelers, drop them off at the door of, say, a Dayton International Airport and pick them up on their return. (Dayton, as an example, offers non-stop service to two dozen cities, from Chicago and Cleveland to Atlanta and Dallas.) So the traveler takes advantage of a much cheaper roundtrip ticket, and everybody's happy.

Well, not everybody. It's a broadside attack on what Portune and Rhodes contend is a major challenge to the local economy: Delta's monopoly over the airport, and by all appearances, its monopoly over the airport board of directors.

"These [Delta] ticket prices are driving small business out of the region," alleges Portune. "What Dusty and I are doing is trying to save local business. We're trying to save jobs."

"If you listen to UC studies, there's not a job in Hamilton County that's not connected to the airport," charges Rhodes, referring to a number of University of Cincinnati economic reports that laud the economic impact of Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. "In reality, only about 30 percent of flights originate here. Everyone else is just hopping planes, maybe buying a cup of coffee at the terminal while they wait." In other words, if you work at a Starbucks or a Subway inside Terminal C, then your job definitely depends on the foot traffic between planes. Every other job in the region and its immediate connection to the airport economy, to paraphrase Rhodes, is suspect.
The pair's adacious concept for an out-of-town taxi delivery service pits them"”and, if they have their say, the entire weight of Hamilton County"”against Delta Airlines and the Kenton County Airport Board, which controls CVG management. Granted, they can't pull off anything without the support of at least one other commissioner: Republicans Phil Heimlich or Pat DeWine. However, with the county commission election coming up and David Pepper vying for Heimlich's job, anything could happen. Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible.

MOST COSTLY AIRPORT

Cincinnati's travelers endure the most expensive fares in the nation, according to the Department of Transportation's "Domestic Airline Fares Consumer Report."

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 domesic and international non-stop service at our beck-and-call.

Of course, if you're not Procter & Gamble, if your business takes you only to a Chicago or Cleveland, then perhaps having non-stop daily service to Amsterdam is something you could live without. A recent survey of Hamilton County residents by Fidell Associates shows that 62 percent of the population has gone to an out-of-town airport to take advantage of more competitive fares.

Stephen Silver, a Delta airlines pilot as well as a candidate for the east-side's 34th District seat in the Ohio legislature, has a unique take on the matter. He suggests Delta has been allowed to get away with charging upper-altitude rates by the very passengers who complain about those fares.

"We have had several low-cost carriers come and go from CVG," Silver notes. "Whenever a new airline does come to town, we [the ticket-buying public] don't support them.

"Invariably, the big airline here will match the prices of the new entrant in our market," he continues. "The consumers, eager to get their [Delta] frequent air miles, don't support the new guy"”only looking for the cheap ticket and bonus miles.  

"You can't have it both ways.  If you want competition, you have to support it. You have to actually fly them once in a while to get them to stay."

TERMINAL C: LOSING SHARE

Even as Delta has slashed and burned competitors over the years, it did throw out one bone: A SimpliFares program for discount airfares under certain restrictions. But after entering bankruptcy, Delta dropped SimpliFares, which had lowered some ticket prices and, according to CVG's own annual report, had increased local usage of the airport by more than 25 percent.

Now the forecast is cloudy. From January through June, about 30 percent fewer passengers passed through the CVG gates than in the same time period in 2005 (4 million compared to 5.8 million). The single largest loss was seen in Terminal C, the Delta terminal. Terminals A and B actually had 25 percent and 10 percent increases respectively in passenger traffic, while charter traffic declined 17 percent.

AIRPORT'S VIEW

Ted Bushelman, the airport's director of communications, dismisses the shuttle concept out of hand. "It's been tried twice before, about eight or nine years, by two different bus companies," notes Bushelman. "It didn't work."

But could the current combination of Delta's reduced flights and higher fares make it work now? Especially when there are now nine airlines serving Dayton (as opposed to Cincinnati's option of eight), and twelve airlines serving both Indianapolis and Columbus respectively. (Beginning this month, the popular JetBlue begins flying out of Columbus, as well.)

If the shuttle service actually came to being, one idea is to have it depart from Broadway Commons downtown, and from outer-zone Park 'N Ride locations such as the Miamitown Metro area along state Route 128.

Portune is quick to clarify this:  he's not suggesting a solely taxpayer-funded taxi service, only a county economic feasibility study, which might encourage an enterprising entrepreneur to pick up the idea. He notes such a shuttle might also appeal to residents of Butler and Warren counties, who are approximately as close to Dayton's International Airport as they are to Cincinnati's.

These two are lone crusaders for now. Hamilton County's top financial officer is a Democrat but a fiscal conservative from the west side, while the lone Democrat on the three-member Hamilton County Board of Commissioners often is marginalized by the Republicans who rule the county roost. And Rhodes and Portune are not making fast friends on this issue. At least not in public.

"Here's what I hear," relates Portune of his private conversations with area power-brokers. "The airport board is the corporate elite, it's so insulated."¦Others privately agree with us, but the chamber party line is they are afraid to challenge CVG."

WHAT OF CORPORATE ELITE?

Other critics echo the thought, that the downtown Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber toes the corporate elite party line: Delta's CVG monopoly and high fares are worth the convenience of having a hub airport, with more direct flights in and out daily. But Doug Moorman, the chamber's vice president of government affairs, points out that the air service committee includes representatives of small and medium businesses along with bigger companies, regional economic development professionals, and tourism industry experts.

Moorman notes that although the chamber has never taken a position on CVG governance and policiess, "as an organization we do believe we have a tremendous asset in CVG."

That said, the chamber "is concerned with the costs we incur with that outstanding level of service," Moorman continues. "We think competition is a good thing."

Delta, adds Moorman, is an asset with its non-stop flights, "both for business travel outbound and for customer travel inbound.
"There's tremendous value there that should not be under-estimated."

Moorman says that to the airport's credit, its representatives have been going out to meet with other carriers, finding out what it would take to bring them here. "It's a challenging undertaking"”and delicate with the complexity of the airport's relationship with Delta," he notes.
Earlier this year, the chamber formed a Regional Air Service Committee, chaired by Arlyn Easton, president of Meyer Tool. The purpose? To "help competitively position" CVG and "support efforts to ... attract new carriers."


How does the chamber feel about Greater Cincinnati business people routinely driving to airports in other cities? "It's a concern when people are not utilizing the airport that's here, but we realize businesses need to make decisions that are in the best interest of their bottom line."

Moorman is enthusiastic about chamber efforts to work with business leaders "on both sides of the river" to explore more regional air service capabilities. He says the emergence of more regional and low-cost air services could help meet the needs and budgets of small and medium-sized businesses.


"These are assets we need to harness," he remarks. "I want to repeat: we think competition is a good thing."

A HISTORY LESSON

The Kenton County Airport Board"”which ironically controls an airport located in Boone County"”is a bit of a political misfit, a concocted recipe of one part this, one part that.

"I'm not sure anyone is looking at the minutes, or if Hamilton County's representatives even show up" to Kenton County Airport Board meetings, challenges Rhodes, who adds he is mystified at the raw power that has been handed the board over the years. "This would be like Delhi Township getting to control all the police in Hamilton County." (Calls seeking a response from Kenton County Judge Executive Ralph Drees were not returned. Drees alone appoints all full-voting members of the airport board.)

The board was created on June 3, 1943, by a resolution of the Fiscal Court of Kenton County. Under the provisions of Chapter 183 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes, it was "created and organized as a public body politic and corporate."

The board coordinates the "use agreements" in effect with the airlines that land at CVG. Each use agreement expires on Dec. 31, 2015. Every time a plane lands, the airport is paid landing fees by the airline involved.

"The board has proven it's incapable of standing up to Delta Airlines," charges Portune. "It's scared to death [of losing Delta]. But there's a market here." If Delta goes away, "others will step in."

"One of the popular misconceptions is, 'We can't challenge them'," says Rhodes of the CVG board. "It's the emperor's new clothes kind of thing."

"Part of the reason," adds Portune on this topic, "is there was never any data to challenge them with."
So, in 2004, Portune and the Hamilton County Commissioners engaged an outside expert who interviewed 1,800 county residents about how, or if, their lives were affected by CVG.

The survey asked if "frequent bus service were available to Dayton Airport from a convenient location in Hamilton County at a total round-trip cost of $20/$40, do you think you would use this service?" Some 70 percent responded "yes" if the bus fare was $20 and they could save $200 in airfare and parking. Even at a $40 fare, 61 percent responded favorably.
Rhodes, for one, finds this statistic damning.

"The board set up the competition to fail because of their gate arrangements with Delta," suggests Rhodes, who adds that again and again, whenever a smaller carrier tip-toes into CVG, Delta immediately slashes fares to drive out the discounter, then hikes prices once it's killed the competitor. "I think they [the airport board] handed the monopoly to Delta." (Delta controls approximately 80 percent of all CVG flights.)

As Rhodes puts the reluctance of the airport board to challenge the status quo, "Nobody holding four aces ever asks for a fresh deal."
 
In the next issue of Cincy Business: Who and what is the airport board? How does the structure of this airport board compare to other cities? And a sit-down discussion with members of the board to hear their side of the story.