You win some, you lose some

Every city wants more direct flights. They mean hours of time saved on air travel each week and set the stage for stronger corporate connectivity between regions, allowing for a better exchange of ideas, talent and investments. “More direct flights—particularly internationally—will help our town as we grow and attract companies coming here, as well as those who are already here,” says longtime Columbus civic leader Jack Kessler of the New Albany Company.

Yet Kessler also recognizes that the quest for more direct connections is a “very competitive struggle.” And recent events seem to underscore that point. In August, city leaders celebrated the news that Alaska Airlines would begin a direct flight between John Glenn Columbus International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in March. The new nonstop route gives Columbus a more convenient link to one of the most dynamic cities in the U.S. But just a month after that news broke, Columbus took a step in the other direction. Despite the efforts of Columbus business leaders and financial support from the city of Columbus and Franklin County, Southwest Airlines announced plans to eliminate its daily route between Columbus and Oakland, California. As Columbus increased access to one critical West Coast location, it lost a daily connection to another.

Even though Columbus is the largest city in Ohio—and the second largest metropolitan area in the state—John Glenn Airport has always offered fewer direct flights to major cities than airports in many other comparable cities. The main reason is that no airline uses the Columbus airport as a “hub,” an epicenter of flight activity. Columbus civic and business leaders tried to correct that about a decade ago when they invested millions into the Columbus startup airline Skybus. For a few spectacular months, Skybus gave the city direct flights to airports near major cities all over the country, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston. But the good times didn’t last, and Skybus went out of business after less than a year.

Since then, Columbus leaders have focused on a more traditional approach: winning over established airlines. And they’ve had some success, particularly since the advent of the city’s economic development driver Columbus 2020. “I remember the discussions on air service 10 years ago, and they’re so much more improved today than they were a decade ago,” says Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer.

“Domestically, we’ve seen good improvements across the board,” adds Fischer. “That’s keeping up with our economic growth, but it’s also helping to fuel—it’s the chicken or the egg, you need both—and they’ve been working in tandem.”

The new Seattle flight is a good example. Columbus Regional Airport Authority CEO Joseph Nardone says Columbus business and airport leaders had been working on the deal for years—well before Nardone arrived in Columbus in January 2018. “It’s been a high priority for us,” Nardone says. “You have to just keep working it, and it’s a fulltime job.”

Still, the loss of the daily Oakland flight was jarring. Sean Lane, the CEO of the Columbus healthcare IT company Olive (formerly CrossChx), was a frequent user of the flight. Like many other leaders in Columbus’ growing tech sector, Lane maintains close ties to Silicon Valley, where two of his main investors, Khosla Ventures and SVB Capital, are located. “I was really impressed with the Partnership’s efforts around making that happen,” Lane says. “I thought that was really awesome to see the business leaders coming together, presenting a case to Southwest, really applying pressure to Southwest to open up that line. … I noticed a lot of people on it, so I thought, ‘This is going to stick.’ ”

In early October, Lane worried about losing a critical means for reaching talent on the West Coast, as well as customers and partners. “It’s a wrinkle,” he said. “It just makes it a little bit more difficult.” He also says the availability of direct flights in Columbus may affect how and where he grows his company in the future.

“Direct air flights were not part of my calculation [for building a business in Columbus],” he explained. “But, as we grow, whether or not we have remote offices or keep a sales team, for example, all in Columbus, certainly direct air routes will have an impact on that decision.”

Columbus airport leaders quickly addressed Lane’s fears. About two weeks after the loss of the flight to Oakland was announced, John Glenn Airport declared the addition of daily nonstop service to San Francisco International Airport starting in June 2019 via United Airlines. Nardone says that conversations about the new flight ramped up within the past three to six months, though potential flights can take years to crystalize.

“We [often] go to headquarters of airlines, and we visited United a few months ago in Chicago,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things you do as you ratchet it up; you get closer to them, you have more conversations, you have more dialogue, you continue to provide information that’s helpful to them in their decision-making.” He adds that Columbus 2020 provides further valuable information to airlines about Columbus economic growth and potential, and economic connectors in different locations around the world.

And another area of focus is working to secure a direct flight to Europe. Such a flight isn’t pie in the sky, insist business and airport leaders. What will help Columbus get there, McDonald says, is global connectivity in business. Again, strategic direct routes help business relationships, and business relationships open doors for routes.

“I think people think air service development is like, ‘Let’s get this flight.’ No. It’s a constant conversation with the airlines,” says Nardone. “I went in March to see British Airways, I went to Asia to see some airlines. You’ve got to work it all the time.”

And conversations are continuing to happen. “We believe that, with intentional effort, we can help hundreds of our companies to be more connected globally,” says Kenny McDonald, CEO of Columbus 2020. “We want them to export more services and products from the market into more markets around the world—we think that actually creates more jobs back at home.”

He loves that we are developing a strong connection with Silicon Valley through IT innovations and startups that are springing up locally. A route to Europe, he says, would be useful for a different industry.

“As a manufacturing state, we think the best place to connect in Ohio would be the middle of the state that serves the greatest number of counties and Ohioans and Ohio companies,” he says. “If we’re able to connect to Europe, for example, with all the European manufacturing locations and headquarters there and sales operations here and things like that, it’s really important.”