Thursday, September 28, 2017

Upstate South Carolina's smaller airports pack a big economic punch

A mere three miles from downtown, Anderson Regional Airport manager Justin Julian often feels secluded.

"Half the people in the county don't know we have an airport," Julian said Wednesday, "and the other half don't know what we do here."

Even the half that has been on the ARA's 704-acre campus for an air show typically knows little about operations on a normal day, Julian said Wednesday.

"I think there's a perception that one or two planes a day land here, and that it's a rich guy's playground," Julian said. "I don't think anyone knows that we do about 30,000 planes a year."

About 80 planes arrive or depart from ARA daily, which makes it one of the 10 busiest of the state's 54 general aviation airports. And like many regional airports, it is more familiar to sports teams, performers and celebrities from outside the region than to Anderson residents.

Seventeen of Clemson's 18 athletic teams (all except football), use ARA regularly, as do all Atlantic Coast Conference visitors other than football. (Football teams need larger planes that require longer runways.) Among its visitors of the past year are President Donald Trump, entrepreneur Bill Gates, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and dozens of entertainers who have performed in Anderson, Greenville and Clemson.

High-profile travelers prefer the time-saving, stress-avoiding setting of the small airport, Julian said.  "And typically, organ donation teams and medical transport teams can get in and out of here a lot quicker (than using a commercial airport)."

Corporate activity keeps the Upstate at the top of South Carolina's economic numbers. In a state where 44 of the airports had less than a $5 million impact in the last FAA survey, five Upstate ports — Downtown Greenville, Donaldson, Anderson, Oconee and Pickens — combined for an economic impact of $287 million.

A big piece of the small-airport activity involves business, which keeps runways at all six of the Upstate's general-aviation airports busy. Of state's the 10 busiest, according to the FAA, six are in the Upstate.

"Corporate aviation is huge in the Upstate," said South Carolina Aeronautics (SCA) Executive Director James Stephens. "By and large, the community doesn't see it because those flights aren't the commercial airports, and most people don't understand what the general aviation airports are used for."

The SCA is in the midst of a comprehensive study on the state's 54 general aviation and six commercial airports that will be completed in 2018. He doesn't expect it to differ dramatically from the 2006 study compiled by Wilbur Smith Associates of Columbia, an infrastructure consulting firm.

It reflected robust activity among regional airports in the Upstate, where, after experiencing significant business loss in the recession of 2008, arrivals and departures are on the rise.

"A lot is based on the economy. We're next to a booming city, and that will get you a lot of air traffic," said Greenville Downtown Airport associate director Lara Kaufmann. "We're not back to where we were before the recession, but a lot of people are flying in and out."

While more attention goes to the large jets that bring commercial flights to GSP — more than 58,000 flights are expected there in 2017 — a combined 255,000 planes are expected to land and depart at general aviation airports in Anderson, Greenville Downtown, Donaldson, Oconee and Pickens County.

"We have a lot more planes come in here than people would think," said Oconee Regional Airport manager Jeff Garrison, who gets significant business from residents in the North Carolina mountain towns of Highlands and Cashiers, and plenty from the growing economic engine of Clemson University.

"A lot of our activity has to do with Clemson home football games. On game days, we'll have 40, 50, 60 or 70 planes in here, which helps our numbers," Garrison said. "But in recent years, it seems like we've had a lot more students and their parents flying in. And more business from people who live on the lake (Hartwell)."

Like the downtown airports in Greenville and Spartanburg, Anderson once welcomed commercial flights. The legacy of that history is two 150-foot-wide runways, one of them 6,000 feet long.

The extra 1,000 feet of runway enables 737 jets to land at Anderson, as well as the Bombardier Global Express, the largest corporate aircraft. One of those 17-capacity planes, which are valued at $62.3 million, flew into ARA from Las Vegas for last year's Clemson-Notre Dame football game.

Like most general aviation airports, runways are busiest on weekdays, when corporate executives can save time and avoid stress at the smaller venues.

"If you're an executive going to a general-aviation airport, you walk up to the plane, board, and you're in the air within 10 minutes," Stephens said. "You can land pretty close to the plant you wanted to see, get there in a short drive and in a few hours you can be flying back home — all in less time than flying into a major airport."

"It's easy to get in and easy to get out," said Anderson County Administrator Rusty Burns of the Anderson port, which operates without help from tax dollars. "Some days, you'll see five or six corporate jets are on the runway."

At the Pickens County Airport near Liberty, where a new terminal was built in 2009, first-year manager Carlos Salinas calls small airports "the launch pad for business in the Upstate.

"A good bit of our traffic is CEO types who come from Florida or the Midwest to do business in the Upstate," said Salinas, whose port averages 65 operations a day.

Salinas, a former Air Force pilot, said recent technology has helped. Planes that were too heavy to launch from the airport's 5,000-foot runway 20 years ago can do so now because newer aircraft are lighter and more fuel-efficient.

Talk of replacing the 61-year-old terminal in Anderson, and refurbishing its longest runway, raises Burns' hope of additional revenue. A new terminal, offering rental space, would offer the potential of increased revenue and traffic. Ramp fees were recently waived in an effort to increase fuel sales at the airport, which embraced 29,790 operations in 2016.

More importantly, Burns said, a new terminal would make Anderson more attractive to potential industry.

"It's a big advantage in corporate recruiting," Burns said. "When a company is thinking about relocating, one of the first things they ask about is airport access."

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