CINCINNATI -- The high ticket prices. The Delta dominance and downsizing. The drives to Dayton.
Finally, the day has arrived that might alleviate all the years-long headaches for Greater Cincinnati fliers.
Southwest Airlines, the crown jewel of low-cost carriers, announced Wednesday it's coming to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, launching daily non-stop flights to Chicago and Baltimore beginning June 4. The carrier is pulling out of Dayton International Airport and shifting its flights to Cincinnati, similar to the move fellow low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines made in 2013.
Amid blue, red and yellow balloons and banners, top business and political leaders from both sides of the Ohio River touted Southwest's arrival as a game-changer for an airport once notorious for having the nation's highest ticket prices. Hyperbole? Well, they weren't saying that when discount carriers Frontier and Allegiant came to town in recent years.
"Make no mistake: This ... is ... big," Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said.
Southwest Airlines carries more passengers domestically than any other airline, accounting for 25% of all U.S. passengers. It created the model for low-fare airlines — popular because of its impeccable customer service, no reserved seating, and a resistance to charging baggage and change fees as competitors nickle-and-dime fliers. Those are big reasons Southwest is the only discount carrier that has the cachet to lower fares across the board at an airport, aviation experts have told The Cincinnati Enquirer.
In other words, Delta fears Southwest.
Dallas-based Southwest has done what no other competitor has accomplished in a market once owned by Delta Air Lines. Southwest has won over the business community — and vice versa. The airline convinced enough companies to make seat guarantees, and also received a commitment from businesses to cover some advertising costs to promote the new service across the region.
Details about which companies and the level of commitment made were not disclosed, but the high-powered Cincinnati Business Committee, Cincinnati Regional Business Committee, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and REDI were heavily involved in connecting Southwest to large and mid-sized companies.
"We feel there are folks here who have a vested interest in helping Southwest be successful," said David Harvey, Southwest's managing director of business development. "We were able to build relationships with some key corporate partners to get formal travel agreements in place well before we start the service. That's going to put big wind in our sails."
Southwest took its first look at CVG a decade ago, Harvey said. That's about the time Delta began a decade-long downsizing of some 600 flights at CVG, mostly due to the Atlanta-based carrier's decision to focus on other markets after its merger with Northwest Airlines. But Delta still had a strong enough grip on Greater Cincinnati to make CVG one of the nation's most expensive airports. The high fares still forced small and mid-sized company managers and vacationers to look mostly to Dayton for cheaper flights.
Since Candace McGraw took over as airport CEO in summer 2011, CVG has aggressively recruited low-cost airlines. The airport pursued all domestic low-cost carriers, also including JetBlue Airways. The turning point started in 2013.
After noticing many of its passengers out of Dayton were from Greater Cincinnati, Frontier decided to step onto Delta's turf at CVG and launched daily non-stop flights to Denver in May. The Denver-based carrier became the first low-cost airline at CVG in a decade. Fliers quickly embraced Frontier, prompting discount carrier Allegiant Air to give CVG a try in early 2014. Both carriers have made several expansions since.
"Has that helped pave the way for Southwest? Oh, without a doubt," McGraw said. "They took a chance on us, and success begets success in the airline industry."
In fall 2014, Southwest got serious about CVG. Harvey started quietly meeting with airport officials and leaders of the CBC, CRBC, chamber of commerce and REDI. Periodic meetings occurred in 2015, and the CBC asked an aviation consultant to help with a formal business case late that year. Also in 2015, CVG ended a 40-year agreement with the airlines, a deal in which Delta has influence over most of the airport's business decisions.
A new deal balanced the power among the airlines at CVG, where landing costs have declined 44% in the past four years. That helped the business community build its case with Southwest, whose executives repeatedly heard a recurring message from Greater Cincinnati businesses' concerns about declining flights and high fares during hours of meetings last year.
In talks with 200 regional companies each year, REDI president and CEO Johnna Reeder said air service "is No. 1 issue I hear about, hands down."
In November, the region's Fortune 500 and other big-company CEOs — all represented by the Cincinnati Business Committee — met with some of Southwest's top executives. That all but sealed the deal. Many CEOs, including real estate developer and Reds co-owner Tom Williams, were at CVG for the press conference.
"This was a complete collaboration between business and government in Kentucky and Ohio," Cintas CEO Scott Farmer said.
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 waits to take off at Chicago's Midway Airport as another lands on Feb. 9, 2012. (Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP)