Look behind the scenes at CVG, a city within a city

Cities are always in flux, each with its own energy, defined by the collective and independent efforts of its population. When some of its people are sleeping, others are working, making everything operate and move forward. But cities require regular love and maintenance — and sometimes big changes.

In many ways, CVG is its own city. It has more than 60 food and retail vendors, a fire department with two firehouses, a police force, security, grounds and weather crew, public art and, although transient, a consistent, diverse population. While the airport directly employs around 460, another 12,000 people have badges that allow them access to work in and around CVG.

With a population larger than many small towns, the airport operates 24/7/365, and one of its primary goals is growth.

CVG aims to accomplish five goals by 2021:

  • Increase annual passenger total to nine million;
  • Lease 350 acres of airport land for development;
  • Increase annual community economic impact to $5 billion;
  • Demolish functionally obsolete facilities and construct a state-of-the-art rental car facility; and
  • Rank higher than all peer airports in quality of service.

$1.5 billion Amazon Prime Air cargo hub will be the next big addition.

On top of that, Amazon announced earlier this year that it will introduce a $1.5 billion cargo hub at CVG. The project will involve Amazon leasing more than 900 acres of land for more than 50 years, constructing three million square feet of buildings and adding more than 2,700 jobs.

Connecting a region to its airport

Amid the huge focus on growth, airport leaders are also working to put regional culture front and center for many visitors experiencing Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky for the first time.

CVG has a history of being a businessperson’s airport. Until 2012, nearly 80 percent of passengers were simply passing through for connecting flights. They meant business.

In response, the airport began re-evaluating its strategic plan, shifting focus to include more leisure flights. Now, 90 percent of traffic originates at CVG — meaning people coming or going, but not simply to catch a connection — bringing diverse cultures and worldviews to the region every day.

Brian Cobb is CVG's vice president of customer experience and a 25-year employee of the airport.“We want to tell visitors that their visit to Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky starts here,” says Brian Cobb, 25-year CVG employee and vice president of customer experience. “We have the opportunity to have their visit start and end at the airport.”

For CVG staff, that means creating a sense of place and a welcoming culture for visitors.

“For people coming here for business or leisure, they get a sense of the Midwest when they walk through the airport,” Cobb says. “This is what Cincinnati and Kentucky is about.”

The airport’s partnerships with local arts organizations like the Cincinnati Ballet and the Cincinnati Museum Center have proven essential to giving visitors a lasting impression.

The airport is home to 18 original mosaic-tile murals from Union Terminal. Last year, when museum leaders scaled a $219 million restoration project, the airport was again entrusted with artifacts for safekeeping and display. This public art not only showcases the story of the region, but enriches the traveler experience, says Cobb.

“What’s the attraction? What am I going to do while I’m waiting for my flight? We have to be on show all the time. There has to be ambience. It has to have a sense of vibrancy, a sense of who we are.”

With people passing through the airport at all times, CVG sees an opportunity to curate something of a museum-like experience.

CVG is the temporary home for many Museum Center artifacts.

“We kind of fell into this part-time curation,” Cobb says. “We’re not curators, but because we have this relationship with the Museum Center, it proved in a very short amount of time that the airport is pretty capable of creating a micro-museum inside our space.”

The airport also views its infrastructure as being capable of providing museum-like qualifications.

“We have security and cameras everywhere; we have people always walking the space,” Cobb says. “As far as the air-handling systems, you aren’t going to feel extreme heat or extreme cold, which would be damaging to the art and artifacts. It’s the perfect environment to bring those elements in.”

Stress-relieving mini horses make bimonthly "rock star" appearances at CVG.

Last year, as a stress-relief measure for visitors and an homage to Kentucky’s equestrian heritage, CVG partnered with Seven Oaks Farm to begin hosting therapy sessions with miniature horses twice per month.

“The original plan was to actually have them at the concourses,” says Cobb. “But they’re such rock stars that there’s always a crowd around them. We can hardly get them out of the terminal facilities.”

Redefining how — and how many — people fly

After CVG recognized the opportunity to consolidate and realign its cost structure, it began expanding its services by bringing in more affordable air service providers.

“When people came through here before, they referred to it as ‘flying Delta,’” Cobb says. We were still serving the traditional customer and the legacy carriers — Delta, United, Continental, American and US Airways."

The airport's first take at branding itself was, ‘Get here, get there, get home,’ which was more focused on a business individual. A move that Cobb says prevented many people from viewing CVG as an affordable option.

“We had no low-cost carrier activity — no Southwest, no Allegiant, no Frontier,” he says. “It was still that ‘business person’s airport.’”

Southwest Airlines at CVG

Adding those low-cost options has brought diversity beyond the typical business traveler, but it was only one aspect of making the airport more accessible for more people. Over the past four years, CVG has decreased its landing fees by 44 percent, and it anticipates its new partnership with Amazon will prove even more beneficial to carriers.

Cobb believes the partnership will also have implications and benefits for the larger region.

“It’s not just this airport,” he says. “It’ll increase the regional economic development beyond, I think, any of our expectations.”

New apps like BlipTrak provide real-time updates for passengers.CVG also plans to extend some of its newer, more successful technologies to other aspects of the airport’s operations. It sees apps like BlipTrak — which uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth info to give passengers approximate security wait times — as one such opportunity.

“(BlipTrak) has worked so successfully that we’re going to install nodes around the airport,” Cobb says.

Anticipating how long other experiences might take — shopping, eating, boarding, etc. — could give travelers a better idea of how much time they have before a flight.

Task Watch, a similar app, is used to alert staff of how many visitors have been through a restroom at a given time. But CVG sees future potential for other uses.

“The implications go beyond housekeeping benefits,” Cobb says. “It goes to security, too. A key element is that we can communicate at all times.”

There’s never a typical day

A couple miles from the terminals, the airport’s field maintenance crew is always at work.

For them, being a 24-hour operation means constantly preparing for the worst. That includes watching weather forecasts designed specifically for the airport, dealing with power outages, replacing machines or parts, cleaning, facilitating conference calls to keep teams up to speed and managing events during inclement weather.

“Every day there’s something different that goes on, and you have to react the best you can,” says Shannon Oldfield, CVG’s vice president of operations and maintenance. “We have 7,500 acres to take care of.”

Shannon Oldfield, VP of operations and maintenance at CVGDuring winter this is especially true, when one of the crew’s primary responsibilities is dealing with snow. In the event of a snowstorm, a team of approximately 120 people is at work to prevent delays or cancellations.

“It’s managed like it’s an emergency,” Oldfield says. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Custom-designed for snow removal in 2012, CVG houses multi-function machines in its field maintenance facilities. Each machine is comparable to the size of a small aircraft, and it takes around nine machines lined up side by side to span the width of a runway.

But most days, the crew is focusing on being proactive rather than reactive. It’s another testament to this city-within-a-city’s 24/7/365 operations. Whether it’s the a.m. or p.m. shift, crews are tasked with remaining constantly vigilant and keeping everything up to standard. Even rare lags in passenger flow shouldn’t be mistaken for downtime, Oldfield says.

“There’s never a typical day. We’re busy basically all the time.”


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Read more articles by Kyle Stone.

Kyle is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. When he isn't writing, he's making music, riding his bike and taking photos of his adventures.