Buffeted by airline industry changes, high average fares and a steady decline in passengers the Dayton International Airport is one of the few airports its size that is not growing, according to a recent report by Delta Airport Consultants, Inc.
Of the 69 “small hub” airports all but Dayton and four others are growing in passenger boarding, departures and seats on planes departing an airport, according to Delta Airport Consultants Inc., a Richmond Va. consulting firm that publishes The U.S. Air Service Beige Deck report.
“It will bottom out at some point, but right now we are in a big vicious circle,” said William Swelbar, the company’s chief industry strategist.
The airport has more than 900,000 passengers boarding a year in Dayton and four airlines providing non-stop service to 16 destinations. Local airport officials say they have a lot to work with and plenty of reason for optimism.
“My vision is continuing to be a strong economic engine and increase low-cost carriers at the airport,” said Gil Turner, interim director of aviation at the airport. “There is no reason why the low-cost carriers won’t come back to this airport. I strongly believe they will come.”
“We just need to keep telling our story,” said Turner, who took over the top job this year after former director Terry G. Slaybaugh was hired by the state’s private economic development arm, JobsOhio.
Officials with the city and business community say the airport is well-run, convenient and has a renovated terminal and amenities they believe can help attract customers and expanded air service. Since 2010 $158 million in improvements have been made, including a $21 million air traffic control tower, the just-completed $29 million terminal modernization, a three-floor parking garage, airfield improvements and construction of maintenance facilities for PSA Airlines, which is owned by American Airlines and headquartered at the airport.
“It’s an important asset for the city of Dayton and the region,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. “We have done a good job on things we can control.”
The Dayton Daily News Path Forward initiative seeks solutions to the most pressing issues in our community, including making sure our region is prepared for the economy of the future. This story examines the challenges faced by the Dayton airport, which not only provides the region’s travelers with convenient air service but remains a critical part of economic development efforts.
“Companies ask about a variety of transportation needs depending on the project, from highway and rail access for product distribution to air travel for their employees. That can include direct flights to and from various locations, but also ease of use,” said Julie Sullivan, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president of regional development. “For the Dayton airport, their advantage is the ‘easy to and through’ model and being one stop from major hubs for domestic and international travel.”
Hurdles pile up
There is no doubt that the airport has struggled in recent years.
Enplanements, a measure of the number of passengers boarding a plane, declined by 38.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, when 950,620 people boarded, according to an analysis of Dayton airport data. The airport is on track to see another decline this year, with boarding down 2 percent between January and October, compared to the same period last year.
Since 2013, when the year low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines left Dayton, the airport has seen a steady decline in the number of passengers boarding. In fact, enplanements in 2018 were more than 740,000 lower than airport officials had forecast in a 2008 Master Plan, which is currently being updated under a $1.4 million contract funded mostly by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Deregulation and consolidation of the airline industry hurt airports across the country, said Janet Bednarek, a University of Dayton professor of history and expert on airports.
“Barring a restructuring of the airline industry there is not a whole lot that individual airports can do except try to convince the airlines that people will use that airport,” Bednarek said.
She uses as an example Piedmont Airlines, which in 1982 opened a Midwest hub in Dayton, providing non-stop flights to several West coast cities. In 1989 it merged with U.S. Air, which shifted the hub to Pittsburgh a few years later. The Piedmont concourse at Dayton sat unused and was eventually demolished. American Airlines and U.S. Air merged in 2013 and American continues to fly out of Dayton, consistently boarding the most passengers of the four airlines at the airport.
“I think the short term is just going to be a lot of continuing challenges for the Dayton airport, a proven facility that through no fault of their own just had some difficulties in service remaining there, with the added insult to seeing airports around them grow and grow and grow,” said Jay Ratliff, a Dayton-based aviation analyst. “It’s really through no fault of their own that airlines chose to go to other airports or reduce service.”
One of the airport’s biggest losses over the years was a result of consolidation in the air freight and cargo industry. In 1981 Emery Worldwide built an air freight and cargo hub sorting facility that grew so large plans were in the works to seek FAA approval for a fourth runway at the airport and land was purchased for noise abatement purposes. But as the industry consolidated, Emery became Menlo Worldwide Forwarding and then was bought by UPS, which closed the Dayton air cargo hub in 2006.
There was one good effect from that devastating loss of air cargo business, $6 million in landing fees and thousands of jobs. That is because the land that was purchased using FAA funds for noise abatement had to be sold. That land is now home to multiple companies, including Spectrum Brands and online pet-goods company Chewy. About 1,600 jobs have been created in the last three years and another 200 jobs are expected by 2020, said Ford P. Weber, director of economic development for the city of Dayton.
The airport is a self-supporting enterprise operation, which gets the bulk of its funding from the FAA and also receives money from passenger and landing fees, rent, leases and grants. The city of Dayton does not subsidize the airport, said Linda Hughes, air service manager.
This year’s operating budget is $36.4 million and its capital fund budget is $3.5 million. The airport has $21.4 million set aside in reserves, Turner said.
Approximately 2,500 people work at the airport. About 130 are city employees and the rest work for PSA Airlines headquarters, the other airlines, rental car companies, the federal government and concession operators.
Dayton is classified by the FAA as a “small hub” airport based on type of service and enplanements. The FAA term “hub” is different from the airline industry’s use of the word hub to refer to airports where airlines gather passengers to catch connecting flights.
Dayton is an origination and destination airport and has no connecting flights or airline hubs.
Since 2014 domestic enplanements at all U.S. airports increased 19.3 percent to 802 million, according to the latest edition of the Beige Deck. By comparison, enplanements at Dayton decreased by 16.2 percent between 2014 and 2018, according to Dayton airport data.
The Delta report also found that departures at U.S. airports are up 6.5 percent to 8.35 million and domestic seats on departing aircraft increased 18.9 percent to 999 million since 2014. The number of airports with commercial service declined to 427 from 450 during that period.
Compared to its 69 small hub peers, Dayton ranked 25th for domestic departures, 36th for outbound seats and 38th for enplanements in the 12 months ending this past April.
During that period in 2019 the Delta report found the Dayton airport had:
— 16,731 departures, down 14 percent from the 12 month period ending in April 2014.
— 1.1 million outbound seats, a 21.3 percent decline.
— 852,513 enplanements, a decline of 24.5 percent.
As a group, the small hub airports saw increases in all three categories, with departures up 12 percent, outbound seats up 28.3 percent and enplanements up 22.6 percent during the period measured, according to the Delta report.
The airports larger than Dayton include 30 large hub airports and 32 medium hub airports, all of which are growing, Delta’s study found.
High average air fares
Dayton also consistently ranks high for average air fares. In the most recent data available, Dayton’s average air fare during the second quarter of 2019 was $437.52, making it one of the most expensive of the 100 largest U.S. airports, according to data released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Dayton’s main competitors are the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which had an average fare of $346.44, and Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, which had a $363.97 average fare. Among all U.S. airports the average domestic itinerary air fare was $364, according to federal data.
“Price is the almighty determinant of a consumer’s decision to travel,” Swelbar said.
It was not so long ago that Cincinnati residents were traveling to Dayton to grab the low fares offered by Southwest Airlines, a major low-cost carrier that had no Cincinnati operations, Bednarek said. In 2011 Southwest Airlines bought AirTran, which had provided low-cost air fares in Dayton since 1995. But in 2017 Southwest Airlines shuttered its Dayton operations and moved to the Cincinnati airport after an aggressive recruitment effort by that region’s business community and Cincinnati airport officials hoping to push down airfares that had once been among the most expensive in the country.
Frontier, another popular low-cost airlines left Dayton for Cincinnati in 2013. Now the only remaining low-cost carrier at Dayton is Allegiant Air, which has three seasonal flights out of Dayton and recently expanded operations in Cincinnati. All three low-cost airlines also fly out of Columbus.
Turner said the lack of low-cost competitors in Dayton also reduces pressure on the American, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines to cut fares at the airport.
“That is helping those airports keep their (fare) costs down low,” Turner said. “If we had a low-cost carrier here in Dayton that would balance our fares out.”
Everybody likes to save a buck, acknowledges Chris Kershner, executive vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. But time is money for the business traveler and Dayton can save that traveler plenty of time and hassle, he said.
“It’s a concierge airport,” Kershner said, citing the airport’s business services center, plentiful parking close to the terminal, the recent move of the rental car companies to the covered parking garage, shorter security lines and the ability to walk to airline gates rather than rely on shuttles or trams. And the Dayton airport isn’t an hour or two-hour drive with the heavy traffic common in Columbus and Cincinnati.
“You might be able to save $20 on a flight by going to a different airport, but is that 20 dollars worth me having to spend an additional two hours travel time?” Kershner said.
“The business community really appreciates the convenience of the Dayton airport.”
Experts say strong connections with the business community are key to winning airline support for more routes or new carriers, and local officials say they are doing just that by working together in the Corporate Airport Advisory Group. The goal is to determine where local businesses want to fly, communicating that with airlines and airport officials, and building relationships with the airline companies, Kershner said.
“We were successful in obtaining business class service (from Delta Air Lines) to Minneapolis/St. Paul out of the Dayton airport,” Kershner said. “We would really like to have a direct flight to the west coast, specifically the LA area. We would also like to have airlines go to the east coast, Boston specifically.”
Bednarek said airports can also stand out by working to be more “green” by installing solar panels, offering recycling options, electric car chargers and being prepared to have the facilities and equipment needed in the future as alternative jet fuels are developed.
“That would attract many of the young passengers who are concerned about the significant carbon footprint of the airline industry,” she said.
Mike Cross, aviation planning and engineering manager, said the airport is already moving in that direction. The terminal modernization program included multiple energy efficiency improvements, there is a robust recycling program and the airport is looking at getting electric car charging stations. Ideally those could be used for valet service, returning a fully-charged car to travelers who park their electric car at the airport. He said the airport is open to partnering with the airlines and the airport’s fueling infrastructure operator if the FAA approves alternative fuels for airlines.
Stacey Heaton, executive director of the Ohio Aviation Association, said attracting a new airline or convincing existing ones to expand service is difficult but not impossible.
“Air carrier route planners don’t select new routes in a vacuum but rather make decisions based on data that shows a comparative analysis of likely route profitability across communities,” Heaton said. “Once the data shows the need and the airline adds the service, the community must support the new service by filling the airplanes.”
Bednark shares some of Turner’s optimism about the Dayton airport’s future.
“The thing that they can do is continue to be the most convenient for the people in the Miami Valley and north of Cincinnati.” said Bednarek. “If Dayton remains more convenient, if its security lines are shorter, if its parking is cheaper, if the amenities in Dayton are up to snuff then they’ll choose Dayton.”
Dayton International Airport Improvements-Top ten most expensive 2010-2019
$158 million in construction projects have been completed at the airport since 2010.
Dayton International Airport Enplanements - Passengers boarding planes 2008-2019
Source: Dayton International Airport
Dayton International Airport
Located: 3600 Terminal Drive, Dayton OH
Owner: City of Dayton
Airlines: Daily service by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines; seasonal service by Allegiant Air.
Non-stop destinations: 16
Flights arriving: 48 to 50 daily
Flights departing: 48 to 50 daily
Employees: Approximately 2,500. About 130 are city employees and the rest work for PSA Airlines, the other airlines, rental car companies, the federal government and concession operators.
Source: Dayton International Airport
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