COLUMBUS, Ohio — More flights and record numbers of passengers — if these are the measures of success for an airport CEO, Joe Nardone is wrapping up a stellar first year as head of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority.
John Glenn Columbus International Airport was poised in 2018 to hit 8 million passengers in a year for the first time. That tops 2007, when short-lived Columbus startup Skybus Airlines helped the airport reach 7.7 million passengers, and last year’s second-highest tally of 7.5 million.
In 2019, three sought-after new routes from three major airlines — including one airline new to Columbus, Alaska Airlines — are to launch.
Meanwhile, Rickenbacker Airport enjoyed by far its biggest year in terms of both passengers — thanks to the growing operations of Allegiant Air — and cargo shipments.
Still, Nardone, who came to Columbus from much-larger Detroit Metropolitan Airport, isn’t satisfied.
“We’re just starting. This is just the beginning,” Nardone said in a recent interview.
Nardone is especially focused on two things this year: continuing to improve the airport’s bottom line, and getting the larger community on board with increasing air service, especially long-sought international flights.
Both goals might require tough choices. The airport authority recently eliminated 22 jobs — half of them full-time, half part-time. Airport spokeswoman Angie Tabor said seven people were laid off in the process while other positions were reduced through restructuring or not filling vacant positions. Tabor added that, in deciding which positions to keep, the authority placed priority on “front-line positions that contribute directly to our operations and customer experience.”
Keeping costs down is especially important for the airport now for several reasons. The airport authority has long discussed building a new terminal but hasn’t figured out how to pay the likely cost of more than $2 billion. In addition to escalating construction costs, the failure of airports to get an increase in passenger-facility charges (per-ticket fees that airports use to fund capital projects) in the recently passed Federal Aviation Administration bill was a blow.
Carriers have also become increasingly willing to abandon routes that aren’t performing well in favor of more-profitable ones.
This year, Southwest Airlines cut a nonstop flight from Columbus to Oakland, California, that was highly sought after by local government and development officials as a link to Silicon Valley. Nardone said he has gotten an earful from people in the community unhappy about the route cut. Although Nardone, too, dislikes losing a flight, he said it’s up to the community to step up and support air service.
“People say ‘I was on that flight all the time,’” Nardone said. “And I say, ‘Well, not enough people like you were on it.’ Airlines make decisions in their best interest, and airports are there to serve airlines.”
Nardone said 2018 saw the culmination of years of work by the airport authority’s air-service development efforts. In quick succession, flights were announced to Seattle and San Francisco, two long-sought West Coast routes, along with the Western hub of Salt Lake City. John Glenn Airport also welcomed ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines and announced plans for the arrival in March of Alaska Airlines.
The one big goal that has remained elusive is an international flight to a European gateway such as London, Paris or Amsterdam, catering to business travelers. While declining to get specific, Nardone strongly hints that such a flight could have been secured for Columbus had the community been able to come up with several million dollars to provide a fund commonly referred to as a revenue guarantee to an airline for the first two years of service. This setup is designed to protect the airline as it devotes resources to establishing and marketing a flight that’s likely to take months to become profitable.
FAA rules prevent airports themselves from giving money to airlines this way, although they can provide non-cash incentives such as the waiving of landing fees. It typically falls to state or local governments or to business-development organizations to put up the money. The Oakland flight on Southwest was guaranteed by a combined $1.7 million pledged by the city of Columbus and Franklin County.
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