Never a clear winner in the race for airline hubs, Columbus avoided devastating hub setbacks, too.

Port Columbus International Airport today has more annual passengers than airports serving Cincinnati and Cleveland. Never a clear winner in the race for airline hubs, Columbus avoided devastating hub setbacks, too.

Not so for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport, which lost two-thirds of its annual passenger count after Delta pulled out most of its hub and commuter operations there in the last seven years. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport suffered substantial flight and passenger losses from the 2014 pullout of United hub operations after a merger with Continental.

None of Ohio's airports avoided setbacks completely. Columbus lost daily direct flights when Skybus abruptly closed in April 2008. Meanwhile, air carriers cut 100 million annual passenger seats and 1.4 million annual flights since their peak before the 2007 economic downturn.

In 2014, about 6.3 million passengers took off from Port Columbus, getting closer to the 6.7 million annual passengers during the heyday of Skybus. Year-to-date passenger traffic is up 4 percent, says Elaine Roberts, President and CEO of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority.

Earlier this year, CRAA announced an $80 million investment in improving the mechanical systems of the airport. Separately, in late April, airport officials disclosed long-term plans for a $1.3 billion relocation and expansion of terminal and parking facilities between the north and south runways by the year 2030.

In fact, Roberts says, the airport has planned some kind of terminal relocation for years, and the most recent strategic plan puts off the expense by about 10 or 12 years from the date assumed in a 2005 long-term strategy.

But parts of the existing terminal will be 70 years old by the time of the move, and needed improvements to the mechanical systems for HVAC, baggage and other maintenance can't wait until then, she says.

"We weathered the recession pretty well," Roberts says, and the long-term plans of the airport seem completely compatible with the JET Task Force recommendations. Development within the airport property itself is possible, and the airport has property that could support new hangar space to the east.

Roberts agrees with the JET report's call for new ground transportation options, and she hopes the JET team - or its successors - will re-examine shuttle service and rail over time. "We've got to have more than cars and taxis," she says.

The task force has called for making Port Columbus a multi-modal transit hub, with enhanced bus service, citywide rail passenger service or even high efficiency rail connections to Chicago.

COTA is already formulating plans for an airport-to-Downtown bus service for 2016. Today, those working or traveling to the airport via COTA would need a transfer.

Thea Walsh, transportation systems and funding director for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, says task force members know we must offer more transit options. She supported MORPC Executive Director William Murdock, who chaired the Transportation Working Group for the JET Task Force.

"We concluded we need some kind of multimodal transportation hub at or near the airport," Walsh says. In an era where more consumers want to avoid driving and parking costs, some critics give Columbus poor marks for public transit.

"We recognize that a transit line between the airport and Downtown will not be sustainable on its own," Walsh says. "We believe you need to incorporate the airport as part of the transit system to make it stronger, but it can't be the only spoke on the wheel."

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.