Small airports are dying out. What will 2018 hold for Dayton’s hub?

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Here's how to find cheap flights.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

The Dayton International Airport is at an arduous point in its history — a major air carrier left this year, ticket prices are higher than most Ohio airports and passenger traffic has steadily declined.

Nationally, the declining trend has hit small- and medium-sized airports and forced several dozen to lose air service as they struggle to compete as major airlines pull up stakes and land at larger airports.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Dayton airport officials said they are not throwing in the towel and the hometown hub is not in danger of shutting down.

The airport is honing in on a strategic plan for 2018 that focuses on business travel and improvements to help keep it competitive with airports in cities like Columbus and Cincinnati and keep one of the city’s top economic engines vibrant.

“It’s an integral part of the future success of the region,” said Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO of the Dayton Development Coalition.

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The airport plan includes major efforts planned to keep passenger traffic steady, increase seat capacity, sell and develop more commercial real estate owned by the airport, and make headway on expansive terminal renovations, according to airport director Terry Slaybaugh.

The Dayton airport expects to see an increase in seat capacity offered by airlines like American Airlines, United Airlines and Allegiant Air. More seats mean increased competition and, eventually, lower average fares, Slaybaugh said. More flight accommodations to markets across the country is critical to growing and retaining local businesses, officials say.

“I’m optimistic about the next year, we’ve got a lot going on,” Slaybaugh said.

Airfare drops elsewhere

Airfare data released recently show average ticket prices nationally have declined overall, but prices at the Dayton airport have climbed and are the highest compared to Ohio airports in Columbus, Cleveland, Akron and Cincinnati. Meanwhile, average airfare at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport dropped to the lowest in the region. After decades of being considered one of the most expensive airports in the U.S., the airfares at CVG have dropped 16 out of the 17 quarters.

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“CVG is proud to now be the lowest fare airport in the Tri-State region,” said Candace McGraw, chief executive officer of the Cincinnati airport. “Passengers are paying on average $200 less per ticket than they were four years ago. Our community has responded very positively, proven by our passenger volumes growing more than 70 percent over the last four years.”

Dayton’s average airfare increased from last quarter to $400, while Columbus dropped to $369 and Cincinnati dropped to $369. Airports in Kentucky, like Louisville International-Standiford Field, were still more expensive than Dayton.

Slaybaugh said he expects airfare to stay level for the next year, but the average prices rose after Southwest left the market. He said Allegiant’s expansion in the market has helped drive down the average airfare cost — adding flights to destinations in Florida and Myrtle Beach.

“Dayton has been one of the most successful markets for Allegiant,” he said. “We’ve proven Dayton is it’s own market.”

Battling against big hubs

The pricey airfare and inconsistent traffic in Dayton is a stark comparison to the barrage of new discount offerings at the Cincinnati airport. In the past year, CVG has added service from Southwest Airlines, expanded flights from discount carriers like Frontier and Allegiant — and announced it would add low fare, international flights from Icelandic air carrier WOWair.

“Everyone is up against Cincinnati,” Slaybaugh said.

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The Cincinnati airport continued to set local passenger traffic records in August, and celebrated three years of consecutive year-over-year growth, the airport announced Monday. In August, local passenger traffic was up 30 percent with more than 362,500 originating passengers, marking the third highest local passenger August volume in CVG’s 70-year history.

For the Dayton airport, passenger traffic declined more than 14 percent to 74,538 last month compared to August 2016 when 86,922 passengers traveled through the airport. The decrease was not a surprise to airport officials, who said it is a reflection of Southwest Airlines’ departure from the airport. July was the first month that the airline no longer served Dayton, after Southwest switched its services over to CVG.

While Slaybaugh originally called the departure a “blow” to the airport, it’s not the only city that Southwest has abandoned in recent years.

Southwest’s decision is part of string of events to negatively impact Dayton’s airport. Troubles started 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.

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Dayton is among 21 airports that Southwest has exited since the AirTran merger was announced, according to Volaire Aviation Consulting. And more than 50 small to medium-sized hubs have lost air service completely in the last five years. Slaybaugh said it is a disturbing trend to see small and medium-sized airports lose passenger traffic and capacity as air carriers leave for larger markets, but Dayton is not in danger of losing its airport services.

“We’re not in that situation,” he said.

Local aviation expert Jay Ratliff said every time a merger between air carriers occurs, overlapping markets condense and it normally results in fewer flights for consumers. “Mergers always leave airport officials wondering: What’s going to be affected?”

Ratliff said the low-cost carriers are traveling to different areas of the country — and now the globe — from Cincinnati, so the sudden increase in new options likely won’t lead to a saturation in the market any time soon. The competing airlines drive down prices, benefiting travelers in Southwest Ohio.

“It all comes down to low-cost carriers, that’s what’s driving the changes going on,” Ratliff said.

Dayton positions itself 

While Dayton is battling the forces of a changing air travel industry, Slaybaugh is positioning the hub for success into the future — focusing on increasing options for travelers. While the airport is constantly talking with air carriers, including low cost carriers like JetBlue, Slaybaugh said they’re focused on adding comfort, more seats and additional markets for the business travelers in the area.

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Dayton already serves the business community with flights to major hubs like Charlotte, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Detroit and Atlanta. The airport will look to expand more options to New York and Washington. Chris Kershner, vice president of public policy and economic development, said business leaders would also like to see a route farther West than Dallas — with routes to Los Angeles or Seattle.

“We need to go farther west,” he said. “We work closely with the airport and our business community to see what kind of new destinations are needed.”

The airport will also get a fresh look with millions of dollars in renovations — taking up to 22 months to complete. The airport’s terminal modernization project will occur in phases, and the first part will include new restrooms, HVAC upgrades, the relocation of the USO offices, lighting upgrades and other work.

Dayton commissioners approved this month two contracts for about $15 million to pay for the first bid package of phase 1 and demolition and reconstruction of the concrete apron. The second and third phases will include a new terminal canopy and interior upgrades, the addition of a car rental building, terrazzo flooring and lighting upgrades.

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“Pretty much everything from the wall behind the ticket counters to the curb in front of the parking garage will be replaced or renovated as part of this program,” Slaybaugh said.

The original airport terminal and cargo buildings were completed in 1958, and the last major project that impacted the passenger experience took place in 2011 with the creation of a new, inline baggage system, Slaybaugh said.

The airport proposes adding new carpet through the terminal as well as replacing carpet with terrazzo in the main corridor. The terminal will get colorful, LED lighting and a 6,000-square-foot rental car space on the garage. Boston Stoker is closing its store in the terminal area before the security checkpoint, but will maintain its shop within the airport, beyond the TSA screening area.

Kershner said Dayton’s hub offers convenient parking, amenities like the Business Travelers Center and the ease of a fast security process for travelers.

“Airport service is critical for our business community and the airport does a great job advocating for those destinations and we will continue to partner with them to make sure the business community has a voice,” Kershner said. “It’s more than just ticket prices.”

Staff writer Cory Frolik contributed to this report.

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