Sunday, January 01, 2017

New year ushers in more change for Charleston International Airport

The maze of temporary walls has disappeared at Charleston International Airport. So have the construction workers, orange barrels and the celebration marking the completion of the 31-year-old terminal's $200 million makeover.

But that was last year. The new year promises to bring a whole new array of transformation to the state's largest airport. The mix includes a change at the top, more construction and a possible resolution to a long-stewing lawsuit.

Chief among the changes is the search for a new CEO. Paul Campbell, 70, who piloted the Charleston County Aviation Authority through almost all of the four-year construction overhaul, is stepping down, most likely by the spring.

The state senator and former Alcoa executive announced last summer he would leave by the end of December, but the Aviation Authority board asked him to stay on until financing is secured for the airport's next big project: more parking. Campbell has agreed, and the oversight panel has expanded its search for a new CEO.

By the spring, the board hopes to have financing in place to pay for a second parking deck at the airport. More parking is needed because the number of passengers continues to swell, growing from 2 million arriving and departing in 2010 to an expected 3.8 million in 2016.

The board wants Campbell to remain as CEO to present stability in the organization to the bond markets so it can get a better rate on its debt.

Aviation Authority member Walter Hundley, a lawyer and former state senator heading the airport panel that oversees parking, said it's important that Campbell stay at the helm until financing for the parking deck is secured.

"I think it would be good for the Authority to have the stable leadership that we have so far with Director Campbell," Hundley said. "Right now, things are coming along smoothly, and we don't have any major blowups."

Campbell was tapped to lead the organization in 2013 when longtime director Sue Stevens abruptly resigned over a simmering dispute with the board. Her departure came just as the agency was about to vote on financing to pay for the airport terminal overhaul, throwing uncertainty in the mix at a crucial stage of the operation. 

Hundley said Campbell brought stability to the agency at the moment it was needed, helping to secure a better bond rate.

The new parking deck is expected to cost about $80 million, but no hard figure has been established, Campbell said.

Construction could start by mid-year, forcing airport officials to push surface parking to outlying lots for 15 to 20 months and creating a challenge during heavy travel periods such as the holidays.

"We have to make sure we take care of parking while we are building the deck," Campbell said. "We will just have to shuttle people from the outlying lots."

The board also may consider expanding the airline ticket hall into what is now the Aviation Authority's staff parking lot. More ticket counter space is needed to make way for more airlines if they choose to select Charleston as part of their service market.

Campbell said the two projects will be treated separately because of financing, but construction most likely will overlap.

"We will get the parking deck started and then in early 2018 look at expanding the ticket counter space, but we could start that in late 2017," Campbell said.

The new parking deck will be paid for through revenue bonds, tagging them to earnings produced from those who use the garage. The expansion of the airline ticket hall could involve federal and airport funds, Campbell said.

Also on the agenda next year is likely the beginning of construction for the new $40 million airport access road, according to Campbell.

The new entrance to the airport will come off Interstate 526 near the juncture of Montague Avenue and proceed next to a power line between Boeing Co.'s property and two housing communities in North Charleston off Dorchester Road. It will cross over the existing Michaux Parkway before tying into the existing loop in front of the airport terminal.

When the project is completed in about three years, Campbell said the existing International Boulevard would no longer be accessible to the airport or as a cut-through to Michaux Parkway.

Also looming for the Aviation Authority is a lingering lawsuit involving a former employee and a trial scheduled for late spring.

Former longtime airport spokeswoman Becky Beaman sued the Airport District in early 2015 after she was fired in November 2014 for insubordination.

Beaman is suing the airport district and some of its present and former employees for defamation, unpaid retirement benefits, civil conspiracy and negligent supervision. As part of her suit, Beaman claims her co-workers plotted to have her fired so they could carve up her salary for themselves. 

A judge in November squashed a motion to dismiss the claim of negligent supervision. Airport officials and employees deny all of Beaman's claims.

The trial threatens to expose the intimate inner workings of the agency that oversees air travel in the Charleston area since it includes allegations of adultery and delves into employee's working relationships.

It's scheduled for May 22, if the case is not dismissed or settled out of court before then.

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