McGraw’s among the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky region’s many high-profile CEOs, Candace S. McGraw faces one of the toughest challenges.

It’s her job to pull the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Ky. out of what’s been a slow tailspin.
Cutbacks by the long-dominant carrier, Delta Air Lines, increased competition from other airports in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, and the overall shrinkage of the airline business in an era of consolidation and higher fuel prices in tough economic conditions have left a slimmed airport.

There are now some 170 daily departures — fewer than a third of the number seven years ago. A key economic driver for the region, the airport suffered another setback when banana giant Chiquita Brands International decided last year to move its headquarters to Charlotte, N.C., citing better access to foreign flights among the reasons.

However, as she completes her first year in charge, McGraw insists the airport, which still employs or is linked to 10,000 jobs in the region, is pulling up, stabilizing, and in position to expand.

It’s got a new look. Concourse A reopened in May after a major overhaul in the past two years; more digital access for travelers, new carpeting, artwork, and signs, live entertainment on occasion, and even friendlier airport announcements with such voices as longtime Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman and security videos featuring the baseball team’s mascots.

More Ahead

There are plans in the works for a universal travelers lounge/work area aimed at business customers who have airline club memberships or would pay by the day. The airport recently won an industry award of “Best Regional Airport in North America” and federal Homeland Security recognition for safety.

And there are stepped-up efforts with the help of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Cincinnati USA and other business leaders to draw more air service and business.

Being the underdog

McGraw, former deputy director of the Cleveland Airport System, was promoted from chief administrative officer to CEO last July by the Kenton County Airport Board, which includes community, academic and key executives from companies such as Procter & Gamble, E.W. Scripps and Fifth Third Bank.

“I think people are really pulling for the airport,” she says. “We’re the underdog, they want to see us succeed…”

In a recent interview at the airport with NKY magazine, the 49-year-old Pittsburgh native, a married mother of three, discussed airport changes, what’s ahead, and explained her cameo appearance singing Bruce Springsteen on YouTube. Some excerpts...

“We recognize that we’re the first impression and the last impression of the region for our visitors. We want to treat our guests well; it’s like somebody coming to your home. You want to entertain them, make sure your place is clean, treat them well, give them a good time.”

Q: What are your thoughts as you near the end of your first year as CEO?

It’s been great so far. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things going on. We’re talking about the reinvention of CVG.

So, leading off are our facilities, with the reactivation of Concourse A. That is a great project for the airport for a couple of reasons. One, it expands the gate capacity from eight gates in Terminal 2 to 16 in Concourse A, which gives us the ability to increase existing traffic and attract new carriers.

It’s also a great boost to the psyche of the airport; it’s going to be lighter, brighter and better-equipped. It has the River City mosaic. The ticketing positions are called ‘plug-and-play,’ any carrier can move into any of the positions.

Q: What about the future?

We’re working on a long-term master plan that looks at our facilities from now through 2035…we want to look at cost-effective and cost-efficient development that gives us the ability to adapt to our customer needs. And we want to have high focus on customer service, getting people through the airport quickly and comfortably.

Then, how we maximize our facility and our land to grow revenue. Right now, we are in the midst of a huge expansion by DHL (a $46 million expansion by DHL Express) ... how do you leverage those benefits of DHL, how do you have compatible development, what are businesses that need to be located around DHL that cannot only help DHL grow but generate jobs and businesses?

Q: What about increasing passenger air service?

That is, of course, the highest priority: How do you grow and attract additional carriers especially in the tough economic times? We hired our first full-time, dedicated air service director in December. A lot of time and energy and talent are being devoted to that.

Air service growth in the short-term is going to be domestic. Although we serve 37 of the top 40 markets right now, we’re looking at whether those markets can be grown. Are there other markets we can be in?

Growing international traffic is a multi-year process and it is heavily regulated…We’re focusing on the needs of this region five or 10 years out. A lot of growth is projected to come from Latin America and Asia, so how do we start vying for those opportunities now?

We’re talking to our regional companies and asking them where they see their growth coming from in the next five to 10 years. We want to be able help grow the current companies. So we have a constant dialogue through the chambers on both sides of the river.

Q: How are you responding to the aggressive marketing and price competition from nearby airports?

We are the premier airport in the region in terms of service, in terms of options, in terms of being able to get you to your destination, with the most nonstop flights and number of destinations serviced.

If you are flying out of one of the other airports and they have services to city X once a day and there’s either a weather delay or an equipment problem, then you’re not making your business meeting. Something that travelers should consider: you want to come to a facility that provides options.

In terms of fares, are we listed as having higher fares for some destinations or certain times of day? Yes. But I think we’re competitive with airports in our region, and it’s incumbent upon the traveler to consider the total cost (including travel to the airport and parking.) Do you want to arrive in another city in the middle of night in the middle of winter and then have to drive home?

Q: What are the improvements for airport visitors?

The airport is a great community asset and we want to be able to showcase the community… We’ve had performances by Cincinnati Ballet, we have had the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the African drum ensemble, the Irish dancers for St. Patrick’s Day…We have a video with the Reds and their mascots showing people how to get through the security checkpoint.

We recognize that we’re the first impression and the last impression of the region for our visitors. We want to treat our guests well; it’s like somebody coming to your home. You want to entertain them, make sure your place is clean, treat them well and give them a good time.

Q: How about that YouTube video?

I have a daughter at Villa Madonna, and in health class the students had to do a workout video. So they did an airport workout video: what you do if your flight is delayed or you get there way in advance… So they did arm lifts with the suitcases, and presses off the seats; how do you walk the steps, and do jumping jacks? The kids filmed all of this.

In the car, (returning to school) I learned some of her classmates didn’t know who Bruce Springsteen was — which was a stab to my heart. I felt it incumbent on me to educate these children.

So I put on my CD, and my daughter and I were singing ‘Thunder Road.” Her classmates were in the back and the boys taped us. At the end, they did a blooper reel, and they left in ‘Thunder Road,” with us singing and acting silly.