COLUMBIA, SC -- After a record five straight years of passenger growth, Columbia Metropolitan Airport hopes to again attract a low-cost airline to the Midlands as it spends $10 million on renovations that will modify the airport's main lobby.
Nearly 560,000 passengers boarded flights in 2016 on three airlines that service the airport – Delta, American Eagle and United Express – a 2.4 percent increase in passengers over 2015.
Now, airport officials say they are using the airport’s rising popularity and strengthened business position as collateral in a new effort to attract a low-cost carrier to the airport, with the goal of providing direct flights to Florida.
“Everybody would like to see a low-cost carrier in our market," said Dan Mann, airport executive director. "We are going to be reaching out to Allegiant (Air), Spear (Airlines) and Frontier (Airlines) in the near future – as we have in the past. But we have a new case to make, I think, with the population growth and the success we’ve had.
“I think we’ve got a good, strong case to make for some Florida service.”
The absence of a low-cost carrier and direct service to Florida is a "hole" in the airport's otherwise strong air service to the East Coast, Mann said.
The existing airport lobby, completed in 1995 to much acclaim, has become a signature feature of the airport. Renovation plans call for the removal of the large directional poles in the lobby that bear banners used to guide passengers. A half dozen large permanent planters in the lobby will also will be replaced with greenery in mobile planter stations.
The main feature in the new airport lobby will be a large circular information desk in the middle of the space, Mann said.
USO personnel will staff the desk answering phones, helping guide soldiers to the airport USO office and providing direction to passengers, he said. Those changes are to be completed by this summer, Mann said.
A good economy and a growing local population are at the root of the new success, Mann said.
“Last year was a phenomenal year for us. It’s never happened in the history of the airport to have five consecutive years of growth.”
The airport’s single-year record growth came in 2005, when Independence Air, the now-defunct carrier, operated at CAE for about 18 months.
However, the airport’s decades-long struggle for growth has produced a mixed history of attracting, but failing to hold, low-cost airline carriers to Columbia, including Air South, which was headquartered in Columbia and served routes mostly in the Southeast from 1994 to 1997 before bailing out. In 2010, Southwest Airlines rejected an incentives package from Columbia to start service at CAE.
Columbia more competitive
Times have changed, Mann contends. Columbia is more competitive with other airports in the region now – which the record appears to reflect.
Larger planes now service the Columbia airport, and the price of flying out of Columbia is down, Mann noted. In 2016, airline seat capacity at the airport grew by 5 percent over 2015.
Since 2012, average airfares at the Columbia airport have fallen 11 percent, airport statistics show. In that same period, the number of passengers boarding planes at CAE has grown by 12 percent.
Significantly, a September 2016 “leakeage” study showed the Columbia airport has recaptured 9 percent of the customers it lost to other airports – most specifically, to Charlotte, Mann said. A similar 2012 leakage study showed Columbia loses less than 3 percent of its area bookings to airports in Charleston or Greenville/Spartanburg, Mann said.
The Columbia airport currently captures 53 percent of the bookings in its primary area, losing 36 percent of the area’s bookings to Charlotte, the 2016 aviation study shows.
In 2012, the Columbia airport captured just 44 percent of the airport’s primary area bookings, losing 49 percent of the bookings to Charlotte, the sixth largest airport in the country.
The three predominant reasons flyers drive to neighboring airports to board planes comes down to the availability of larger aircraft, greater reliabililty and cheaper fares, Mann said, though cheaper fares are key.
“My clients that travel out of Columbia are very happy because the airport is smaller and much easier and faster to get through security,” said Paula Wessinger, owner of Cruise & Travel VIP travel agency in Columbia. “Prices are lower in some cases or not much of a difference to drive to Charlotte.”
Wessinger, who has been in the travel business 20 years and also managed an airport car rental office, cited the recent booking of a flight from Columbia to Los Angeles. The fare for the same flight from Charlotte to Los Angeles was only $26 less. “But the flights (from Columbia) are better and $26 is not enough of a savings to make the drive (to Charlotte),” she noted.
The airport, which does about $20 million a year in operations and capital projects such as parking, rentals, landing fees and other federally-approved revenue, functions under a commission as a special purpose district.
It has gotten its financial house more “in line,” Mann said, charging airlines lower fees to operate. So, “When we ask them for more capacity or better fares, they are more willing to talk to us,” said Mann, who is looking to hire a staffer with experience in dealing with low-cost carriers.
Non-stop flights originate from the Columbia airport to nine destinations including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte. Delta scoops up about 43 percent of passengers and American about 40.
Direct flights to Florida
The main driver for getting and keeping customers, however, is low fares, said Mann, who is approaching his seven-year anniversary at the airport’s helm.
Airport officials are “working very hard” to address the Florida issue in 2017, Mann said. Columbia is a college town with a built-in clientele for flights to Florida, he noted. Business and government travel combine with Fort Jackson to also comprise major components of CAE’s customer base.
Wessinger, the travel agent, has even greater hopes for CAE.
“I don't hesitate to use Columbia Metro for domestic flights, but for international it tends to be worth the drive to Charlotte, N.C., or Atlanta, Ga., because in most cases you can get non-stop to Europe,” Wessinger said.
The Columbia airport’s domestic schedule makes it as vital an entity to the Midlands as any other in the continental USA, Wessinger said, “but it would be an asset if it was international.” Also, more competitive (low-cost) airlines such as Southwest would be a plus, she said.
”The airport is beautiful, open, bright and very user friendly,” Wessinger said. “Customer service with all the airlines and rental car companies are top notch, with our good ‘ole Southern hospitality.”
Next year, the airport is expected to take on another $10 million renovation project, involving taxiway and additional terminal improvements, Mann said.
Overall, the health of the Columbia airport is great, Mann said. Approximately 1,800 employees work in businesses located at the Columbia airport complex – 65 work directly for the airport – creating about $80 million a year in direct payroll, Mann said.
Customers, not government, pay the cost of operations and the customer base is growing, he said. The cost per airport customer is below $10 and debt is down. Airline contracts are under negotiation, Mann said, and the airlines now are willing to enter five-year contracts with the airport.
“If somebody would have said in 2010 we would be in this good shape, I wouldn’t have believed it.”