A day after Southwest Airlines abruptly announced it was pulling its services from Dayton International Airport, officials and business leaders said Thursday there’s not much that could have been done to keep the carrier.
The airline’s decision to leave Dayton is indicative of a pervasive problem for small airports across the U.S. — major air carrier companies are leaving small and mid-sized airports for larger hub markets. Southwest announced it would add services to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and would also pull services at the Akron-Canton airport.
“I’m not really surprised I got the call I got yesterday,” said Terrence Slaybaugh, director of aviation for the airport. “I don’t really appreciate the timing of it and the fact I wasn’t given more time to prepare local officials for what was going to take place.”
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Slaybaugh, who said the call was a “body blow,” received word of Southwest’s decision to pull services just hours before the announcement in Cincinnati. There, officials celebrated the airline’s decision to add eight daily flights to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
“It’s obvious that Southwest Airlines has gone through a very dramatic change,” Slaybaugh said. “We’ve been through some pretty tough times with the airline industry in really a short amount of time. I think people forget that in four or five years, we’ve had mergers which were pretty traumatic.”
Southwest’s decision is part of string of events to negatively impact Dayton International. Troubles started for the Dayton airport back as far as 2008 when several mergers changed the air industry over a matter of years.
Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines merged in 2008, American Airlines and U.S. Airways merged in 2013 and decided to keep American’s brand. Other mergers included United with Continental Airlines in 2010.
In the past five years, passenger traffic at Dayton airport has decreased steadily with fewer flight options. More than 1.3 million passengers traveled on planes in 2012 and that number has continued to dwindle since, ending this November with just under 956,000.
Though Southwest cut services in smaller airports, it also added flights in airports like LaGuardia in New York and Tampa, Fla. Jay Ratliff, an aviation expert from the area, said he expects to see even more airliners pull out of smaller airports in favor of large markets in the coming years. When airlines start to retract services, they are increasingly looking at what markets can increase their revenue.
“It’s the smaller airports that suffer,” Ratliff told this newspaper.
Slaybaugh said from 2010 to 2016, data show larger hub market seat capacity grew by 12 percent and medium hub capacity grew by about 5 percent. Small markets had a reduced seat capacity of about 11 percent during that same period. The Dayton airport has an annual revenue of over $30 million, and has an economic impact of more than $1 billion annually for the Dayton area, Slaybaugh said.
Larger airports are also enticing airlines with abatements and discounted fees. CVG offered new incentives to Southwest, including waiving specific fees.
Slaybaugh said the Dayton airport also has an “aggressive” incentives program for airlines new to the market, including offering 24 months of no rates or charges. The airport also has funding for marketing campaigns. The airport successfully offered these incentives to Allegiant when they started offering services in April 2016. The company later added additional flights in August.
“Allegiant has been very pleased with our partnership with Dayton International Airport and with the response we have received from the Dayton community since we began service there in April 2015,” said Kimberly Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Allegiant, in a statement. “We are always evaluating market conditions for opportunities to launch new service.”
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Chris Kershner of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce told this newspaper that the city spent time and resources to promote Southwest and their flight destinations.
“Airlines come and go at all airports. This isn’t unique to Dayton. It happens across all airports,” Kershner said. “When an airline moves out of an airport, it gives an opportunity for other air carriers to move in. We look forward to working with all interested parties.”
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Slaybaugh said moving forward, the airport will actively work with existing airline partners while enticing new airlines into the market. He is confident the airport is in a “viable market” and will recover from the loss.
“I think for our airport right now, it’s definitely a challenging time for us,” he said. “But it’s also a time for opportunity. We know we have a viable market.”
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