Passengers, flights on rise at Columbia airport

via thestate.com
Saturday, Mar. 17, 2012

Passenger traffic has climbed 5 percent in the past seven months at Columbia Metropolitan Airport as airlines have lowered prices and added routes.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Dan Mann, the airport’s executive director.

Two airlines, Delta and United, Friday announced new nonstop routes to the New York City area.

But the biggest driver of passenger growth has been lower airfares, Mann said. “People shop for airfares,” he said. “You don’t grow when your airfares aren’t competitive.”

The Midlands business community rallied to improve service at the airport two years ago, when discounter Southwest Airlines said it would begin flying routes in Greenville and Charleston — effectively snubbing Columbia. Concerned that decision could devastate the Midlands’ economy, business leaders tried to lure the low-cost airline to Columbia, holding an aviation summit to work on regional cooperation.

Now, a year after Southwest started flying out the state, Columbia has benefitted from its presence and the regional cooperation that grew out its decision not to come to Columbia, Mann and others said.

“A lot of folks, including me, thought we may lose traffic,” Mann said.

In fact, the airport’s passenger traffic rose 5 percent in the past seven months to 284,717, compared to the same August-through-February period a year earlier — an additional 13,419 people. The biggest spikes came in the first two months of this year, an 8 percent increase in January and a 12 increase percent in February, according to airport statistics.

“We’ve had a lot more leisure fares because airlines have to compete,” Mann said.

Mann did not have recent Department of Transportation figures on ticket prices. A new quarterly report is expected in April.

But he said the airport had more passenger growth in 2011 than the previous five years combined. “The real evidence (of lower prices) is when you see your numbers increase.”

Nationwide, airlines pulled back as they struggled to survive and recover from the Great Recession, Mann said.

But now they are starting to look again for places to grow. “We’re one of the markets where it makes sense to grow capacity,” he said, citing Fort Jackson, the University of South Carolina and the presence of international companies.

Capacity at Columbia Metropolitan particularly is crunched on graduation weekends at Fort Jackson, when family and friends are flying in and soldiers are flying out, he said.

That consistent military demand is one of the draws for airlines looking to expand service here, said Ike McLeese, president and chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

After the Southwest debacle, the chamber was instrumental in organizing regional cooperation, forming the Midstate Alliance, a coalition of area economic development groups.

McLeese said the airport has benefitted from lower fares, more capacity brought in by the airlines and lower costs under Mann’s tenure.

Airlines, particularly Delta, have been responding to increased demand, Mann and McLeese said.

Delta added an extra Detroit flight out of the Columbia last year and Friday said it would add a second nonstop route to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, starting July 11. United Airlines also on Friday said it would begin non-stop service to Newark, N.J., starting Sept. 6.

Both of the routes announced Friday are expected to make connections easier to domestic and international destinations, including Canada, Europe and Asia.

Using United’s Newark flight, for example, a traveler could board a plane at 6:20 a.m. Monday and be in London by 9:20 p.m.

The new flights also could help drive prices down even further, Mann said. “Whenever you have more seats in your market, you’ll get better prices.”

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