Business

Q&A with outgoing Columbia Metro Airport manager

Mike Flack, a Kentucky native, is retiring in January after 11 years as manager of Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

On Feb. 1, he will hand the airport management off to Dan Mann, who formerly headed the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids.

Flack, 63, has guided the airport from its transition into a new terminal, and he oversaw construction of extensive parking facilities and an expressway to the airport. He also saw air service increase from three airlines to six and direct flights to 11 cities from six.

But Flack still takes a lot of flak about perceived deficiencies at the airport.

There has been a revolving door of low-cost carriers, from the debacle of Air South to the recent departure of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air.

The airport also has been criticized for having some of the highest fares and worst on-time rates in the country.

It all comes with the territory, he told The State in an interview earlier this month. His thoughts on key issues:

AIR SERVICE

I don't see a time when air service is not going to be a challenge here. We're not a big city. We do not have a big population base. As long as that is the case, air service will be a challenge.

We are still working with Southwest. We would love them to start service here. And maybe someday that will happen. But I dare say that whoever the director is at that point will still be out beating the bushes looking for additional service.

Everybody wants the service of a big city. They just don't want to live in a big city. I have people coming to me saying: "They have this in Charlotte, they have that in Atlanta."

Yes, they do, they sure do, but Charlotte has a million and half people, coming up on two million.

Our total MSA - and we're stretching it a bit - we can get three quarters of a million people. When I visit an airline, the first question they ask is, "What's your population?" At that point, it's an uphill climb. When you are talking to an airline and your population is less than a million, then you've got your work cut out for you.

We've done well with air service. We've done some good things. The next guy that comes in will have the same challenge.

CHANGES IN HOW WE FLY

I'm in a business that is changing at a very rapid pace. Everything is changing. Airlines are changing the way they do business. People are changing the way they travel. There are social changes. Technological changes.

Aviation five years from now will be a very different prospect than it is today.

Ticket counters are a thing of the past. Who buys a ticket at the airport anymore? No one. If you come out here to buy a ticket, first of all, there is probably no one here that knows how to sell one. They are going to point you to a telephone to buy one with your credit card.

Delta and US Air might have someone that knows how to sell a ticket, but they will have to go find that person. Ticket counters, you really don't have a use for them anymore. But they are still nice for airlines employees to lean on between flights.

So ticket counters are going to go out, and you're going to see kiosk islands, a printer that will produce a bag tag and one, maybe two airline employees walking around to help those who need it.

You go to the kiosk. You check in. You tell the kiosk how many bags you got. The printer will spit out the claim check, and that one airline employee will come over and put it on your suitcase for you.

CRITICISM OF AIR FARES, DELAYS

It's fares. It's on-time performance. It's lost luggage. ... I'm always interested to look at the margin of difference. It's kind of like in the Olympics. What's the difference between first and last place? Not much.

So our fares are high compared with some other place. But how do they judge those fares? They report those fares on a per-mile basis. Well, most of our flights are relatively short.

Chicago is about the farthest we've got - 800 miles. While we are competing with Charlotte, who has flights that go for two or three thousand miles. So how are the numbers derived? Then you look at the differences each way.

How do I respond? I really don't. Because at the end of the day, the people who are traveling are going to get on the Internet and find the best deal they can. They are not going to say, "I'm not going to look at Columbia because it cost more per mile." They are going to make a decision based on the fare they find.

No one makes a decision on where to fly from based on those reports. It's just something that, forgive me, that can get a headline. ... I just think you have better things to report on. I think those are non-stories. Worst will be on the front page. Best will be on the back page.

ROLE OF SMALL AIRPORT

Sometimes I think (people expect too much from the airport). They probably are the same people who expect too much of Colonial Life Arena and other things around town. And I think every city has those.

I know some people who wish we had the flights that Charlotte has. That we had the fares that Charlotte has. Personally, I wish we had the 14 million passengers that Charlotte has.

We are here to provide facilities and service for the needs of travelers in this region.

We are a big part of economic development. When you think of economic development, people tend to think of industry. But that's not all of it. The business community needs travel facilities. They need that commercial passenger service and cargo service.

We serve a big part of those needs. But ... we are not here to provide low-fare, nonstop service to everywhere everybody wants to go. It's just not feasible. It's not economically viable.

We are doing a good job providing service for this community. We've got great cargo service. We've got good passenger service. For a community our size, I think we are doing very well. But we don't have all the low fares and direct service we would like.

But if you want to fight the traffic in Charlotte, it's up there.

THE JOB OF THE AIRPORT DIRECTOR

You know, there are two mysteries in this industry: What keeps airplanes up in the sky, and what do airport managers do?

People don't know what I do. People call me up and ask me about lost luggage. I don't do luggage. I buy a carousel and rent it to the airlines. People call me to complain about late flights and canceled flights. I don't schedule flights. I don't fly airplanes.

If the runway is in good shape, that's my part. My job is development, operation and maintenance of facilities. The terminal, runways, roads and parking.

I'm a combination mall manager/city manager. And then, beyond that, I am the community's advocate for aviation. I try to determine what the community needs are in terms of air service, food and beverage, retail or hangars or whatever it may be. And once I determine those needs, I try to get someone to fill those needs. Because I don't do those things.

FLACK'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS

When I came, we had three airlines and one of them had announced they were leaving. So we got busy and managed to keep that one and built service from there. So I'm proud of what we have done with air service. We haven't done everything we wanted to do, but we have done a lot.

I'm proud of the facility. It looks new. I'm glad we could finish what we started with the terminal. The garage. The loop road.

Do you remember the road that came in here in 1998? Good grief.

When I got here, there was no landscaping. ... They didn't even mow the grass that often because nobody said it was important.

I said when you drive into this airport, you ought to feel like you're driving into a golf resort. So, every year, we budgeted a little more money for landscaping.

WHAT'S LEFT TO BE DONE

We wanted to build a garage for the rental cars. We didn't get that done. But I think that will happen some day. It's just not economically viable right now.

But truly there is not that much left to be done here.

We would certainly like to see the expressway finished to the interstate. We would like to see a new tower built. The air traffic control tower is 45 years old. But we're looking at a line item on the federal budget. So ... I still expect to come back for a groundbreaking for a new tower some day.

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