The availability of low-cost airlines throughout the Carolinas is driving would-be passengers away from Columbia Metropolitan Airport — a trend airport officials hope to reverse by attracting a couple of their own.
About 25,000 fewer passengers flew out of Columbia’s airport in 2017 following five years of growth, a nearly 5 percent drop when compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, airports in Charleston, Greenville, Myrtle Beach and Charlotte all had record-breaking years, according to flight statistics collected by each location. They each have one or more low-cost airline.
Columbia airport officials point to an increase in airfares as the reason for the decline. But experts say until Columbia attracts a low-cost airline, it will continue to lose passengers to other airports in the region.
Several low-cost carriers have operated in Columbia in the past, which drove down airfares and resulted in more passengers. Both Spirit and Allegiant operated locally but ultimately left the market when they failed to attract enough customers.
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The Columbia airport’s executive director Dan Mann said he is working to bring them back and is finding that they are “far more receptive and open minded to starting in our market.”
“At some point, our market is going to be too good not to have a low-cost carrier and I think we’re starting to demonstrate that,” Mann said.
Mann is trying to attract Spirit and Allegiant with incentive packages, including up to $500,000 in marketing for new service to Columbia and waivers for all airport fees for two years. He may offer free ground handling as well, he added.
An Allegiant representative confirmed the company’s planning team has been in communication with the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, but there are no plans to start service yet. Spirit did not respond to requests for comment.
Mann would not speculate on whether a deal would be reached.
‘That didn’t work.’
Columbia Metropolitan Airport saw five consecutive years of growth from 2012 to 2016. More and more passengers were departing from the state capital, and during that same time, airfares were dropping.
The average domestic fare out of Columbia in 2012 was $506, and it was down to $432 by 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But last year, fares jumped 15 percent to almost $500.
That increase was an example of airlines trying to maximize revenue, Mann said.
“I think the airlines saw they went too far. That didn’t work,” he said.
The three airlines that fly out of Columbia – American, United and Delta – offered little explanation for the hikes. Representatives from American and United said it had to do with supply and demand, but declined to comment further. Delta did not respond to requests for comment.
On average, fares are roughly $80 cheaper for flights out of Charleston, Greenville, Myrtle Beach and Charlotte to the same destinations, according to The State’s analysis of ticket prices.
Experts say a couple things are lacking in Columbia – competition and options.
Columbia Metropolitan Airport is in the shadows of larger airports offering more flights and better services that are all within driving distance, said Barney Parrella, executive vice president of InterVISTAS, a multi-national air service development consulting firm.
In addition, Columbia is primarily a business market. Airlines look to generate higher yield in those markets because it’s not discretionary travel, Parrella said. That means the average traveler winds up driving away to seek competitive airfares and nonstop service, and that’s a trend happening all over the country, he added.
And the lack of low-cost carriers in Columbia eliminates competition, pushing price-conscious passengers out of the market, said Mark Sixel, president of Sixel Consulting Group. His Oregon-based consulting firm works with airports across the country on air service development.
When the price-conscious passenger is pushed out, the average airfare goes up, Sixel said.
“Logically you would think (airlines) would add more flights out of Columbia, lower the airfare and bring the person back, but what ends up happening is they dump more seats into where the competition is happening,” he said.
Driving to fly
Flyers seeking lower fares are leaving Columbia, opting instead to fly out of Charlotte and Charleston.
About 45 percent of passengers who live closest to Columbia Metropolitan Airport are driving somewhere else to fly, according to a study commissioned by the airport in 2016.
Fred Mansperger and his wife, Jamie, fall into this category.
“We have always driven to Charlotte because airfare was cheaper,” said Mansperger, who has lived in Northeast Richland with his wife for the past nine years. “We’d rather drive the extra 45 miles and save 50 bucks a ticket than go to Columbia Metro Airport.”
Vicki McFarland lives less than two miles from the edge of the airport’s runway, she said, and yet she always drives to Charlotte to fly.
“It’s even worth a night in a hotel room to make up the difference in the fares. Sometimes it’s a $200 or more difference,” McFarland said. “I’d much rather support the local airport and be within a five to 10-minute drive. It’d be so much easier. But it’s been cost prohibitive every time we’ve tried to fly.”
But some people are willing to pay more for the convenience.
“By the time you’ve got gas and food on the way, it’s worth just flying out of Columbia,” said Rob Strickland, who lives in Chapin. “I like the convenience, especially on the return leg and not having to drive back three hours from Atlanta.”
Leslie Nagel has lived in Irmo for the past 11 years, and she said she used to be one of those people who flew in and out of Charlotte to avoid high fares. That was until she found herself making the 90-minute trek home shortly after midnight.
“I realized I really need to put my safety first,” Nagel said. “It’s one of those things where I have to weigh the expense versus safety.”
Airport officials hope that people won’t have to make those decisions for much longer.
In addition to discussions with low-cost airlines, Columbia is benefiting from an improving economy and growing population, said Anthony Gilmer, the marketing and air service manager for the Columbia airport.
Fares started to come back down in the last quarter of 2017, he said. That data has not yet been made available through the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Passenger numbers also started to come back and level out during that same period.
“Airports are losing services all across the country,” Gilmer said. “But there is no danger of that here.”
In fact, airlines have been increasing capacity – or the number of seats on an airplane – and that’s a good sign, said Mann, who will start as the executive director of the Louisville Airport Authority in March.
“The fact that airlines are still adding capacity speaks volumes about the confidence they have in our market,” Mann said. “I’m probably more optimistic about air service in our market in 2018 than I have since I’ve been here.”
Which airport should you choose? The Pros and Cons
Charlotte Douglas International Airport, about 100 miles north of Columbia, has seen its airfares recently drop after steady increases year over year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
What happened? Several airlines in Charlotte added new stops in 2017, bringing the total number of nonstop destinations to 171, spokeswoman Lee Davis said. By comparison, Columbia has nine.
It’s also a dollar cheaper to park your car for the day in Charlotte – $7 compared to Columbia’s $8.
Charleston International Airport, about 100 miles away, has become another option for Columbia’s price-conscious passengers.
It has seen nearly 10 percent growth every year for the past six years, and airfares have been dropping during that same period. Charleston also has 25 nonstop destinations. But it’s among the most expensive airports in the region for parking, with daily rates at $10.
Myrtle Beach International Airport has the most expensive parking in the region, with daily rates at $12. But the airport has been growing every year for the past six years, including an 18 percent increase in departing passengers in 2017. Airfares have fluctuated during the same period but they have remained between $270 and $285 for the average domestic flight, compared to Columbia’s $497.
Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport has the cheapest parking in the region, with daily rates at $5. The airport has seen growth every year for the past four years, despite small increases in the airfares year over year. In 2017, the average domestic airfare for Greenville was $420.
History of low-cost airlines in Columbia
Started service: August 1994
Ended service: August 1997
The Columbia-based airline started with $17 million in state and local grants and loans from South Carolina. It suffered from defective and damaged aircraft, delays and cancelled flights. The airline went bankrupt in August 1997.
Started: June 2004
Ended: January 2006
After Independence Air entered Columbia’s market, it immediately forced other carriers to drop ticket prices. Lower fares resulted in a jump in departing passengers at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. But the airline piled up a $250 million loss through 2005, and later reported $378 million in assets with debts topping $455 million. It went bankrupt in 2006.
Started: December 2006
Ended: February 2007
Started again: February 2009
Ended: September 2009
Allegiant was not attracting enough passengers to sustain its business. Mike Flack, the airport’s former executive director, blamed it on the airline’s flight times – Orlando routes only flew Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings. Allegiant representatives said the airline came back the second time hoping it could create demand. That never happened.
Started service: May 2008
Ended service: March 2009
The airline left Columbia Metropolitan Airport after the demand for leisure travel plummeted during the Great Recession.