Columbia caught in Southwest's crosswind

Midlands economy will take big hit if Upstate, Charleston land airline

04/30/2010 12:00 AM

04/30/2010 12:42 AM

If Southwest Airlines lands in Greenville and Charleston, Columbia could lose half of its 1 million-plus passengers a year within two years, Columbia's airport director said Thursday.

Losing that many flights would cripple economic development efforts in the Midlands, area business leaders said.

Thursday night, Midlands lawmakers were plotting to hold up $15 million in state incentives to woo the discount airline to South Carolina because none of the money would go to Columbia. That money is slated to bring Southwest to the Upstate and Lowcountry, lawmakers have said.

Columbia business leaders insist they are not trying to stop Southwest from entering South Carolina. They just want some state incentive money to try to lure another low-cost carrier to Columbia or to win fare breaks from existing air carriers.

Dan Mann, executive director for the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, said he would need $6 million a year to compete against the low-cost giant.

"I'm not afraid of Southwest," Mann said. "It doesn't have to be this way. Charleston and Greenville can't be greedy."

Midlands senators planned to block an attempt to add the Southwest incentives to the state budget Thursday night.

But even if that effort succeeds, the incentives have another chance to be passed into law. They were approved in a separate bill by the House and could be taken up by the Senate before the General Assembly adjourns in June.

Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said he is concerned that if the state subsidizes one airline, other airlines likely would cut their flights - even at airports served by Southwest. The net result would be poorer choices for S.C. air travelers, not better, he said.

"You might be cutting off your nose to spite your face," Lourie said.

If the incentives move for-ward, Lourie said he would like a guarantee that the new airline will commit to serving the state for a period of time.

Mann said he's concerned that once Southwest arrives, existing airlines serving Greenville and Charleston will lower ticket prices. That would increase competition even more for Columbia's airport, which has among the nation's highest fares.

Mann and Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said Southwest wants to make sure no other low-cost carrier comes to the state.

"You're asking to use state money for a monopoly," McLeese said.

Columbia has tried to win Southwest for the past decade, McLeese said.

Prospects picked up last fall when Southwest sent a scouting team to Columbia. The team visited business leaders and officials at Fort Jackson, where they heard how the Army has to bus troops to airports in Charlotte and Atlanta to find enough seats.

"I thought we made a good impression," McLeese said. "They never told us to go away. We were on their radar, and they told us to stay in touch."

Mann, who took over as director of Columbia Metropolitan Airport in February, said he pitched an incentives package worth $15 million to Southwest, including breaks on landing and terminal fees.

That was higher than the roughly $20 million in incentives offered Southwest to add service to both Charleston and Greenville, Mann said. That package includes all $15 million in proposed state incentives and some matching money from both communities.

Early this month, Southwest turned down Columbia's bid.

"I was told, 'It doesn't move the meter,'" Mann said.

After their rejection, Southwest officials would not say if they already had a deal to fly from Charleston and Greenville, Mann said.

However, Mann and McLeese said they were told a deal to add service to Charleston and Greenville was completed in December. The airline incentives legislation was introduced in January.

Southwest found the Upstate desirable because it is home to several large corporate headquarters, while the planned Boeing jet assembly in North Charleston won a vote of confidence for the Lowcountry, business leaders said. Southwest uses only Boeing aircraft.

Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, said he will block the incentives until Columbia gets a fair shake.

"If we had another airline, we couldn't get that money," he said. "This deal stunk from the very beginning."

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