Higher fares are the main reason that passenger travel is declining this year at Columbia Metropolitan Airport, aviation officials say.
Slightly more than 211,000 passengers have taken flights from the airport through May 31, more than 19,000 fewer during the same five-month period a year ago, records say. That’s a drop of 8.4 percent.
“The only reason we could see is a slight uptick in fares,” airport Executive Director Dan Mann said.
Airport officials are urging fares be scaled back, but airlines so far are “reluctant to modify anything dramatically,” he said.
Fares are at least $50 higher now for many flights to the same destinations as those out of Charlotte, some travel agents said. That difference is about twice as high as a year ago.
That’s enough for some fliers to opt for a drive of up to 90 minutes to Charlotte, Mann said.
The decline in passengers boarding local flights this spring is enough that Mann expects the airport’s string of five consecutive years of growth will end, with a reduction of up to 3 percent likely in 2017.
But he doesn’t foresee any cuts in service. Delta, American and United are doing well here by filling at least 82 percent of seats overall as the airport keeps the cost of service low, he said.
“They’re right about price being a tipping point,” said Mike Palyok, an agent at AAA Carolinas Travel.
Rising prices increase Columbia Metropolitan’s inherent disadvantages, he said. As a regional airport, most of its flights require connections with layovers of up to three hours at airline hubs.
“For many people, driving a little extra to get a direct flight that can save time overall is preferable,” said Palyok, who includes himself in that category.
In addition, the $8 daily parking fee in Columbia’s airport is higher than most other airports nearby, he said.
“When you put all these little things together, it makes a heck of a difference overall,” Palyok said. “I don’t know if it will ever change.”
Airport officials hope an ongoing $10 million lobby renovation and an often swifter passage through security can offset some of those concerns.
Meanwhile, airport officials are continuing efforts to expand choices for both businesses and leisure travel. Their focus is on attracting a low-cost carrier and adding flights to Florida.
“Nothing is imminent, but we are cautiously optimistic” that more flights for winter vacations in the Sunshine State are coming, Mann said.
Airport officials also are keeping an eye on an increasing shortage of pilots that could lead to flight reductions in a few years. The number of pilots retiring exceeds those being trained, which could lead to less service, Mann said. But Columbia is positioned so that any reduction would be “on the back end,” Mann said.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483