By Mike Boyer
February 9, 2011
Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory expects to once again ask the federal government for $4.2 million to build a customs facility at Lunken Airport, hoping to make life more convenient for local businesses who say good air travel is crucial to their ability to work and grow here.
Prospects are uncertain. This is the second year Mallory has included a customs facility among the city’s wish-list of federal funding requests, and it comes amid attempts to rein in the federal budget.
A customs facility could save time and costs for international business fliers, who are required to present citizenship documents and report foreign purchases each time they return from overseas. As post-recession business picks up, business fliers increasingly are using corporate or charter jets at smaller municipal Lunken rather than commercial flights at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which has undergone deep flight cuts.
Currently, however, Lunken lacks the facility or manpower to handle customs duties when international flights return. Last year, customs agents from CVG traveled to Lunken to process about 200 international flights, said Cherise Miles, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
An unknown number of additional flights had to interrupt trips home to first land and pass through customs at major international ports of entry such as JFK International Airport in New York and CVG in Hebron, Lunken airport director Fred Anderton said.
“A customs facility would certainly enhance our ability to attract customers,” he said, especially as smaller corporate jets have become more powerful and capable of longer-range international flights.
City and local business leaders say a customs facility at Lunken would be an important enhancement to attract and retain business, which is growing in international scope.
Douglas Moormann, vice president for economic development for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, said a Lunken customs facility “would certainly be an additional asset for existing customers and a selling point” for downtown development.
But Moormann also cautioned that efforts by the city to expand service at Lunken several years ago faced heated opposition from surrounding communities concerned about airport noise and traffic.
Procter & Gamble Co. supports Mallory’s efforts to build a customs facility at Lunken. The company declined to say how many flights it makes at the municipal airport but said about half are diverted to CVG for customs clearance first before landing.
“Lunken is the base for our Global Flight Operations,” said Robyn Schroeder, P&G spokeswoman. “Over the past three years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of international trips originating and terminating from Lunken. We expect this trend to continue as we focus our efforts on growing business in developing markets.”
CVG spokeswoman Meghan Glynn said it doesn’t view Lunken’s efforts as a threat to the region’s major airport. She also said that CVG is equipped to handle the current demand.
“At CVG, we welcome more general aviation business and have the capacity and infrastructure in place, including customs and immigration, to make it easy and seamless for passengers,” she said.
While increased flight activity at Lunken has been a concern among neighboring communities in the past, it isn’t clear how much a permanent customs facility might affect noise complaints.
Improvements in aircraft noise control over the past two decades have resulted in fewer complaints from residents, Anderton said. Most noise complaints are due to low-flying helicopters, he said.
Matt Ackermann, president of the Columbia-Tusculum Community Council, said his group hasn’t had a noise complaint about Lunken in a long time. “It isn’t an issue right now,” he said.
Customs spokesman Miles said his agency has fairly detailed specifications about what its facilities should include, such as holding areas and interview rooms. The agency does not fund building construction, however, he said. “That’s a responsibility of the airport authority or operator.”
Anderton said the Department of Homeland Security or other federal funding source could be tapped for the cost of the building, which could range from about 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. Customs would charge fees for planes using the facility.
In off-hand comments at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber earlier this month, Ohio Gov. John Kasich suggested local businesses use Lunken more.
In fact, business traffic at Lunken has been growing in the face of airline service cutbacks at CVG.
Traffic at Lunken last year grew more than 4 percent to 64,517 take-offs and landings. Anderton estimates that about 80 percent of that activity is from corporate jets and charter operators.
Northern Ohio-based Ultimate Air Shuttle, for example, launched a daily $645 roundtrip flight to New York from Lunken in July 2009 in conjunction with the chamber. Ultimate Air since has expanded to offer similar service to Chicago and expects to add two more cities this year.
Lunken, which developed in aviation’s barn-storming days in the 1920s, claimed to be the nation’s largest municipal airport until the catastrophic 1937 flood nearly covered the terminal building and led to development of CVG in Northern Kentucky.
Changes in flood control and aviation equipment and systems allow Lunken to handle larger commercial aircraft on a limited basis today. The East End facility is the main reliever to CVG, but it isn’t looking to expand into regular commercial service.
“That makes no sense,” Anderton said. “We don’t have the economies of scale a larger commercial airport provides.”
But Lunken does have plenty of potential to grow its corporate and charter service.
Despite an increase in take-offs and landings last year, the number is still less than a third of the airport’s projected capacity of more than 200,000 a year in its 7-year-old master plan.
“Our goal is to meet the level of service the community needs,” Anderton said. “We don’t want to come up short or exceed the need.”