How Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport wooed British Airways


Behind the airport winning the direct flight to London

A major international airline like British Airways is not going to be able to start service in every large and medium-sized U.S. market. It must be convinced people from other cities will drive an hour or two for the convenience and luxury of a nonstop flight to London.

One of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport’s secret weapons was a simple nighttime satellite photo.

The picture showed lights from homes and businesses in Cincinnati and Dayton merging between the two cities. It illustrated a demographic inevitability people have been mulling over for years – the combining of the two regions’ populations into one.

In this case, Cincinnati’s central location between Indianapolis, Dayton, Columbus and Louisville worked for the region when combined with its strong airport facility, leadership and corporate community.

“What was compelling about Cincinnati is the ability to offer nonstop service and not just serve Ohio, but there’s the Kentucky and Indiana areas,” said Neil Chernoff, British Airways’ director of networks and alliances. “People are willing to drive one to two hours because you avoid having to make connections. That really helps.”

The region’s tourism agencies feel confident it can persuade Europeans to visit this part of the country, a key need for an airline with plenty of U.S.-bound coach seats to fill.

“It helps validate that Cincinnati can compete with other Tier 1 cities,” said Kimm Lauterbach, CEO of REDI Cincinnati, the region’s largest and leading economic development organization.

The inaugural flight outbound from Cincinnati is sold out, with the inbound flight about 80% full, Spann said. For the month of June, about 85% of the overall seats are sold. Between April 2022 and January 2023, U.S. domestic and international flights ranged from 77% to 89% full, depending on the month, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

“British Airways is very happy,” Spann said. “All of this has taken place on organic interest. The true marketing campaign from British Airways hasn’t started.”

Greater Cincinnati’s tourism industry has launched an aggressive digital marketing campaign in London, Scotland, France and Germany, as well as TV ads in London. The ads feature Union Terminal, bourbon, Great American Ball Park, music, FC Cincinnati, horse racing and food. Visit Cincy and MeetNKY have a jointly paid employee responsible for international leisure sales who has been traveling to London.

“A lot of people think of the U.S. as New York, Los Angeles and Miami. People are realizing there’s a lot more to see and do. If you want the quintessential American city, you come to cities like Cincinnati. It’s a little bit of everything,” McGraw said.

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