Columbia Metropolitan Airport's connections to hubs in Atlanta, Chicago and New York are dragging down its on-time arrivals, according to a report released today.
Because of backups in those mega-airports, Columbia has the fifth worst rate for late flights in the country, a Brookings Institution study found.
New York's airports were the tardiest, followed by Palm Bay/Melbourne, Fla.; Portland, Maine; and Philadelphia. Columbia was tied with Atlanta for fifth place.
The institution ranked the top 100 metropolitan areas, rather than individual airports, over a 12-month period.
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The study showed 73.6 percent of Columbia flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled times. The national on-time average was 78.9 percent.
Columbia officials and authors of the Brookings report blamed the late arrivals on delays in major hubs, including Chicago, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and, particularly, Atlanta, where most Columbia flights originate.
"That has always been the case," airport manager Mike Flack said. "We are dependent on service from those other hubs. And some of those don't have the best on-time performance."
Last year, more than 863,000 people traveled through the Columbia airport.
Flack said many late-arriving flights from major hubs often make up time in Columbia by quick turnarounds.
"There is no answer for the late arrivals from our point of view," he said. "Places like Chicago and Atlanta are still going to be backed up."
Robert Puentes, a Brookings fellow and co-author of the report, agreed smaller airports like Columbia are held captive on arrival times by the larger hubs.
For instance, the study showed Atlanta was, by far, the biggest connection with Columbia, accounting for 269,327 passengers in the 12-month period that ended in March. And, not coincidentally, Columbia was tied with Atlanta with late arrivals.
The second largest Columbia connection was Charlotte, with 157,777 passengers in the same time period. Charlotte had an on-time arrival rate of 79.4 percent.
Chad Prosser, executive director the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said Columbia also suffers because larger planes can get priority to take off from hub airports, including Atlanta, creating more delays for smaller planes with fewer passengers.
"It's a dilemma," he said.
The report showed other small airports in the region, including Greenville, Charleston and Augusta, also ranked high for late arrivals for the same reason as Columbia - connections from Atlanta and other clogged hubs.
That is likely to get worse when the economy improves and more people start flying.
So when the federal government is debating its transportation funding, "It needs to be looking at those major metropolitan areas, Puentes said.
"Columbia is an example of how it matters to the country that places - like Hartsfield (Atlanta's airport) - are functioning," he said.
It is the second bit of bad news for the Columbia airport this year.
In February, Forbes magazine reported travelers using the airport pay one of the highest average fares in the country.
In an article headlined "America's Rip-Off Airports," Forbes said the airport was the third most expensive for commercial airline passengers last year, at 39 cents a mile.
Today's Brookings report said lengthy airline delays are twice as common now as in 1990.
The researchers said much of the problem is due to heavy concentrations of short trips between big cities, but they also cited an "ill-equipped" air traffic control system and other factors.
They suggested increasing high-speed rail service to offer travelers alternatives to short flights.
According to Brookings, 10.1 percent of all flights arrive at least two hours late, up from 4.3 percent in 1990. The average delay is nearly an hour, 41 minutes longer than in 1990.