Jason Williams Cincinnati Enquirer
Lunken's Runway Paved with Potential
August 28, 2012
  • Share
  • Lunken Airport, the East End city-owned airfield, is reviving a plan to extend its main runway – a project that officials say will better serve Lunken’s existing corporate clients and create a marketing opportunity to attract new companies to the region.

    Companies including Procter & Gamble, Kroger and Macy’s rely on Lunken for corporate-jet service and support the project. A longer runway would create more flexibility for companies that routinely fly across the country and internationally. The international travel implications are especially important, because nonstop service from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to Europe is down to one destination, Paris, from five in 2005.

    With the downsizing of CVG, where daily peak departures have fallen from 673 in 2005 to around 170, Lunken has helped meet demand for air service. In recent years, the airport sharpened its focus on serving business travelers. Ninety percent of Lunken’s traffic is corporate jets and business charters.

    Extending the runway to 7,000 feet is another piece of the air service puzzle. The current runway length, 6,101 feet,creates challenges for large corporate jets, typically those used by P&G for international travel. The runway limits when those jets can take off during hot summer months. Higher temperatures, when combined with an aircraft’s weight, require more runway space for takeoff, said airport manager Fred Anderton.

    That typically means aircraft must leave during predawn hours. And convenience and flexibility drive the corporate-jet industry.

    “If you’re P&G and you invest $30 million into an aircraft, you want to make sure you can fly it full and with few time restrictions,” said Daniel Friedenzohn, an associate professor, and an airline and airport expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

    Expansion also would allow Lunken to accommodate 100,000-pound jets. Lunken currently has a 70,000-pound limit; any exception requires airport approval. The weight limit means flights headed to Asia or Europe sometimes must stop for fuel, costing time and money, Anderton said. It is a minimum of $2,000 for a corporate jet to land and then reach its cruising altitude again.

    Lunken reaches ‘benchmark’

    CVG’s loss of flights has adversely impacted companies in the region where executives frequently travel for business. Lunken has helped fill the void; 10 private charter companies currently operate there. In 2010, Lunken traffic grew 4 percent and has since stabilized between 62,000-65,000 takeoffs/landings annually. That is less than a third of the projected capacity of 200,000 a year the airport forecast in its 2004 long-term strategic update.

    But Anderton said Lunken has “hit our benchmark” and wants to work on sustaining its business for the next 5-10 years. That is welcome news to the business community.

    “When we lose that kind of service (at CVG), it has business executives taking another hard look at private aircraft,” said Jim McGraw, president and chief executive officer of KMK Consulting, an economic development and tax incentive consultancy. “That’s why we should look very carefully at making sure Lunken is an asset to these companies. If that means making the runway a little longer, then we should look very seriously at doing that. How would you like to have a CEO say, ‘I’m leaving because they wouldn’t improve Lunken Airport?’ ”

    The project is Lunken’s top priority in its long-term strategic plan update. The project is contingent on federal funding, which is anything but certain.

    The plan, originally introduced in 2004, calls for an 899-foot extension onto the south end of the main runway. The estimated cost is between $3 million and $5 million – it was estimated to cost $2.5 million in 2004 – and would take three years, Anderton said.

    Work could begin early next year, but Federal Aviation Administration money has not been made available, and the agency is facing $1 billion in cuts. Industry leaders are pushing Congress to repeal automatic spending cuts set to take effect in January. Lunken is not a priority among the 3,380 public-use airports the FAA says are in need of $52.2 billion worth of upgrades and expansions by 2015.

    Lunken does not receive city or state funding, but receives $150,000 annually from the FAA that the airport uses mostly for grounds maintenance. Anderton said the city will not ask the businesses to help fund the runway extension because of the investment companies already make in the airport. P&G, for instance, pays $124,142 annually to lease land at Lunken; Kroger’s rent is $100,000.

    P&G is Lunken’s top corporate tenant, and when the company had a party to celebrate the opening of a new hangar in 2006, then-chief executive officer A.G. Lafley turned to a city official, smiled and said: “Are we going to get our runway next?”

    P&G spokeswoman Christine Wever said the company is pleased that the city is revisiting the project.

    Commercial service not in future

    Lunken, established as a permanent airfield in 1925, claimed to be the nation’s largest municipal airport until the catastrophic 1937 flood nearly covered the terminal building and led to the development of CVG. Lunken hasn’t had regularly scheduled service since 1963, except for a short-lived attempt in 1990.

    The runway project is not an attempt to capitalize on CVG cutbacks, and Lunken does not plan to add commercial service, Anderton said.

    In May 2004, Cincinnati City Council voted to lengthen the main runway, contingent on funding. At the same time, council unanimously agreed that it did not want scheduled commercial passenger service at Lunken. That ended an intense debate between the city and neighboring communities that were concerned about noise problems caused by regularly scheduled commercial airlines. The neighborhood association does not anticipate problems if the runway extension project moves forward.

    “We haven’t had any complaints in years,” said Matt Ackermann, president of the Columbia Tusculum Community Council. “And we have a strong enough relationship with the airport that if there are going to be any issues, they will talk to us.”