Columbia Metropolitan Airport appears on track to notch its fifth straight annual increase in passenger traffic, a first-ever achievement for the Midlands operation.
Through November the airport recorded a 2.91% increase in the number of enplaned passengers and overall passenger traffic – both arrivals and departures – was up 3.33%, according to statistics posted on the airport’s website.
“We’ve had five years in a row of growth,” said Dan Mann, airport executive director. “Going back to deregulation in the late ‘70s, this has never happened before.”
Additionally, the 3% increase is the largest one-year surge in airport history, Mann said.
Year-to-date through November, the airport reported 516,091 passengers boarded flights compared with 501,503 for the first 11 months of 2015.
As far as total passenger traffic, the airport counted 1,048,061 arrivals and departures through November compared with 1,014,245 for a similar period in 2015. The airport offers 35 non-stop flights to eight major airports including New York, Washington, D.C., Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago.
Mann said larger aircraft and lower fares have given Columbia an opportunity to capture more passengers who might have driven a couple of hours to another airport in the region to save on a plane ticket.
Columbia’s fares have become more competitive with nearby airports in Charleston, Charlotte and Greenville, according to the 2016 Airport Affordability Index by Cheapflights.com, a global flight search and travel deals website.
Cheapflights tracks the average airfare website users found during the month of June to a common list of popular domestic and international destinations and compares it to the previous year’s ranking.
Columbia’s average fare in June was $354, ranking the airport No. 63 among 101 airports listed in the Cheapflights survey. That compares with $314 at Charlotte, which ranked No. 46, and $322 at Charleston, which ranked No. 53. Greenville-Spartanburg ranked No. 81 at $408 in the survey.
Just a year ago, Columbia wasn’t ranked among Cheapflights’ top 100 airports in the survey of fares. A study by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported Columbia’s fares in 2015 averaged about $426, ranking it No. 118 among all airports in the United States served by commercial carriers.
Lowers fares are the result of lower costs that the airport charges carriers, Mann said. In an earlier interview, Mann noted that the airport had slashed per passenger operating costs to about $9 from $12 that was charged in 2010. Cost-cutting measures includes reducing the airport staff by 46%, which produced a savings of $1.7 million annually.
The airport has built the business case for airlines, so it’s “just a matter to get the capacity,” Mann said. Passenger capacity averages 86% for all flights out of Columbia, he said.
Two of the three major carriers serving Columbia – Delta and American – have been phasing out small 50-seat regional jets in favor of 70-seaters and “full-size” passenger jets seating from about 110 to 150 passengers.
Larger planes, even 70-seat regional jets, offer more amenities for passengers such as first-class seating and wi-fi, said Anthony Gilmer, air service and marketing manager at the airport.
The growth in passenger business comes as the airport is undergoing a $10.5 million renovation and remodeling project.
Much of the money is being spent on a new HVAC system for the terminal that’s designed to lower operating costs. The baggage pickup area on the lower level has received new paint and carpet, and workers have removed the moving walks in the terminal building.
The nearly $2 million price tag to replace the moving walks was too high, Mann said. Besides, few people used the walks. A three-day study of customer use found than less than 1% of customers used the moving walks, Mann said.
To serve passengers who may need assistance, the airport is providing free use of baggage carts and Skycaps will be available to lend a hand.
Removing the moving walks also will allow the Transportation Security Administration to expand its checkpoint, providing more room to serve passengers, Mann said. In addition, the walkway from the main building to the gates will be furnished with benches equipped with electrical outlets for charging electronic devices such as cellphones or plugging in laptops.
Other customer-friendly programs the airport has launched include the Fast Lane program, which charges a flat fee of $6 for all-day surface lot parking. The program allows users to enter and exit the airport’s surface parking lot with the swipe of a card and pay a discounted daily rate of $6, Mann said. For the user, the program provides a quick exit.
About 1,300 people have signed up for the Fast Lane pass, he said.
The airport also started Premiere Parking, which offers flat annual rate parking in a surface lot next to the terminal. The parking program, designed for the frequent flyer who prefers to grab his luggage and go directly to his car, costs $1,000 a year.