What will Airport 2.0 be like? It's taking shape at CVG

Last month’s opening of the Amazon Air hub in Northern Kentucky was certainly historic. The milestone would also have been unthinkable when Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport was born on January 10, 1947, nearly 75 years ago.

One-day delivery of dog food, kitchen appliances, or cosmetics to your doorstep? No way.

Orders placed from your couch on a gizmo called the internet? Unimaginable.

But keep your eyes open for more changes this fall, including a treat for air passengers who use rental cars. Then add to the mix the likely announcement of more air carriers, plus some news about the eye-popping, high-tech research and development underway at CVG.

The Amazon hub, the e-commerce giant’s $1.5 billion project, had its first flight arrive on August 5. It now has a few planes on the 600-acre site, with plans to expand as Amazon ramps up for this year’s peak season. Within a few more years, expect up to 32 Prime Air jets making up to 64 flights a day. And this is just Phase 1.

Neighboring DHL has been an an operating partner for Amazon since 2017 as the hub was built out. The carrier is also situated to expand.

In addition, CVG developed land in the north part of its campus for more general cargo with the developer Aeroterm. It's a general cargo facility whose major tenant is FedEx.

“CVG is poised to be the epicenter of e-commerce," says airport CEO Candace McGraw. "Our airport campus is at the intersection of the global supply chain network, and our strategic focus to leverage our location and hundreds of acres of available land are creating efficiencies for the air cargo supply chain."

Airport spokeswoman Mindy Kershner says the numbers give dramatic proof to the cargo boom.

“There are some interesting stats on the cargo front,” says Kershner, CVG’s senior manager of communications. Looking at the five years between 2016 and 2020, “we saw 83% growth in the cargo side.”

Passenger traffic also did well, buoyed by additional airlines and drops in air fares.
“In 2020 we thought we would be kind of going along that same path, but then COVID hit, and just overnight we lost about 95% of our passenger traffic,” Kershner says.

“The building of the air hub provided hundreds of high-skilled construction jobs throughout the pandemic,” Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore said in a statement. “CVG’S Amazon Air hub helps the airport diversify its business model by strengthening its cargo revenues, thus complementing its passenger operations. A stronger CVG enhances the region’s overall economic vitality.”

Early pandemic was eerie time at the airport

Spring 2020 was an eerie time at CVG, as passengers stayed home to stay safe. Perhaps it was not as eerie as the two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when all U.S. planes were grounded. But the Covid-related drop in flights and customers was drastic. 2020 had 3 million or so air passengers. That’s only one-third of the 9.1 million in 2019.

Reservations finally perked up by spring break 2021, and traffic has grown since. Two new airlines, Alaska Airlines and Sun Country Airlines, gave CVG passengers flights to Seattle and Minneapolis. Kershner says legacy airlines including American and United are looking for creative ways to expand service.

The new rental car facility opens in October. Lots of dominoes had to fall into place for this $165 million addition. First, a section of the parking garage was demolished to make way for a new airport roadway system. Then three stories went up, directly connected to the terminal, for a customer service building thought to be one of the first in the country.

Travelers will be able to rent a car right off the baggage claim area. No more shuttles to a far-flung lot.

“What is really nice is that it is all connected, covered, saving time and environmentally it’s better if you no longer have the shuttles going back and forth, saving on all those emissions,” Kershner says.

October will also see the reopening of east-west runway 9/27, CVG’s longest and most used runway.

High-tech firm tests autonomous baggage movers

Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles are far along in the R&D stage at the Cincinnati airport.

ThorDrive, a developer of robot taxis in Seoul and a presence in Silicon Valley, was drawn to CVG by its innovation team.

In the safe confines of the airport, ThorDrive has made an autonomous cargo and baggage tractor – essentially “one big robot” – a reality. For now, it is working, accompanied by a safety driver for good measure. CVG is considered the first airport in North America to operate an autonomous tractor on its campus.

“We're very, very close to completing the road to commercialization, and some very big projects coming up on the way,” says Edward Shelton, ThorDrive’s vice president of business development.

“We're talking to quite a few different cargo airlines, as well as running some trials at CVG airport with ground handling operators, and an airline as well. We have quite a bit of traction.”

Shelton says CVG’s innovation team, headed by Brian Cobb, is “very aggressive about identifying technologies that help them define what Airport 2.0 looks like.”

Self-driving scrubbers? CVG has them. Drones at the airport? Not yet, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

Direct overseas flights would be an economic benefit

What’s next for CVG, perhaps longer term?

Direct international flights are on the wish list of Lee Crume, CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the economic development accelerator.

CVG was working to land direct access to several European cities before the pandemic, Crume says.

“That would be really exciting if we could get on a plane, fly directly to Munich, fly directly to London, fly directly to Amsterdam, along with the existing Paris flight that we have … knowing that those are really all business capitals and places where we have strong business relationships. I think that'd be really cool.”

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