Sunday, November 23, 2003

Why fly from here if you can save so much by driving?

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Joe VonLehman, executive vice president and co-owner of Radac Corp. in Dayton.
(Tony Jones photo)
DAYTON, Ky. - Even though his office is less than 30 minutes from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Joe VonLehman hardly ever takes that drive to catch a flight.

Instead, the executive vice president and co-owner of Radac Corp. usually drives more than 90 minutes to airports in Dayton, Louisville or Columbus to travel by air.

"Sometimes we can still make it work and fly out of Cincinnati if we plan ahead far enough in advance and stay over on a weekend, but we usually can't operate like that," says VonLehman, whose company manufactures and distributes radiator products in 12 states.

"Pretty much all the time now, we tell our guys to either drive or go to one of the other regional airports - because it can be just about double here what it is there," says VonLehman, whose company spends as much as $20,000 annually on air travel. "That puts a real crimp in our productivity, but it's a sacrifice we have to make."

According to a new study commissioned by Cincinnati airport officials, VonLehman and his employees are some of the 2,500 travelers from the Cincinnati area who use the region's five other airports every day. That is more than one in four local travelers, or 28 percent of the local market.

VonLehman points directly at the fare disparity as the reason for his decision. All five major airports surrounding Cincinnati offer low-cost competition, while the local airport does not. Those flying from Cincinnati paid 56 percent more than the national average, adjusted for market size and trip length, in the second quarter this year, according to the federal Transportation Department.

Acknowledging that the airport is a major economic boon for the region, VonLehman also said he is willing to pay more for a direct flight, compared with the connections he makes out of other airports. But the pricing is too high to make it worth it anymore, he said.

"I understand how Delta can do this and how it's gotten to this point, but it doesn't make me like it any more than I do," he said. "It's almost like they would just as soon not worry about passengers getting off and on in Cincinnati and just have it as a pure hub."

"And while it is an economic force, that force has gotten out of whack balanced with the cost to the region," he said.

So, VonLehman said, his choice is to leave or pressure the airport to provide incentives to pull in other carriers - something he admits is not likely.

"It's not an easy equation, and I understand that. But I've got to do what I have to survive."

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