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Columbia airport notches record growth in 2015

An American Airlines flight arrives at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Columbia, S.C.
An American Airlines flight arrives at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. online@thestate.com

The Columbia Metropolitan Airport wrapped up its fourth consecutive year of growth in 2015, welcoming more than 1 million travelers for the fourth year in a row.

The airport hasn’t had a similar string of sustained growth since 1986, officials said.

The 2015 passenger count was up by roughly 30,000 over 2014. In a small airport such as Columbia’s, demonstrating a steadily rising, year-over-year increase in passengers is almost more important to airlines than the number itself, the officials said.

“What’s most exciting about the steady growth at our airport is that the airlines are really beginning to notice that travelers will support the air service we already have and now our carriers are responding by adding more seat capacity,” said Dan Mann, airport director.

The airport’s three main carriers are American Eagle, United and Delta. After a net loss of passengers in 2011, traffic at the airport has increased each year since 2012, remaining above 1 million customers. Cargo totals were also up in 2015, the airport said.

“For us to have this kind of growth without the advantage of a low-cost carrier in the market shows that our commitment to operating efficiently is paying off,” Mann said. “What we’re seeing now is a reverse of what we were seeing before.”

The last time the airport enjoyed a four-year growth spurt, the low-cost, no-frills People Express Airlines was serving the Columbia market.

When airlines evaluate a market and see multiple years of decrease, even if the carriers have reduced passenger capacity to that market, there are two negative outcomes, Mann said. First, the airlines generate less revenue. Second, passengers get in the habit of going to other airports to initiate their flights.

“It becomes a cycle that is very difficult to pull out of,” Mann said. “The same is true when you start growing.”

But when airlines fill up their flights, revenues increase and carriers commit because they see the growth, Mann said. Similarly, when customers discover they can get seats on a plane less expensively with first-class cabin availability when they want, they start to see the Columbia airport as their first choice, rather than second or third, he said.

The Columbia airport does not receive tax dollars, so it charges airlines to operate out of the airport, Mann said. Airlines want to operate where they can earn the most money, he said.

Years ago, the cost to airlines for flying a passenger out of the Columbia airport was more than $12 per passenger, or “quite high,” Mann said. Today, the cost of flying a customer out of the airport is about $9 per passenger, he said, which helps attract carriers and makes the Columbia airport more competitive with other airports.

“This says they are doing a fantastic job,” said Carl Blackstone, Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, noting that the airport is also a significant economic development tool in the region. “When you have an efficient airport – you can lower the cost per ticket – you’re going to encourage people to fly out of Columbia versus taking a trip somewhere else to get on a plane.”

When companies are looking to relocate, they want to see a vibrant airport, Blackstone said, with access close by. People don’t want to drive longer distances to get on a plane, he said. Years of sustained growth at the Columbia airport set the stage for more future growth, Blackstone said.

Some of that future growth is expected to come via American Airlines, which merged with US Airways in October and has mounted a bid to be more competitive, airport officials said.

“We can definitely expect to see more from American in 2016,” Mann said.

Flights with bigger planes and dual-class cabin service to Dallas are scheduled to begin this summer, he said. Larger aircraft will give customers more options by making fares more competitive, Mann said.

He said there’s also another piece to the airport puzzle that is working in Columbia’s favor, even if it is not within the airport’s control.

“The population has grown here and the economy has gotten much better,” Mann said. “We set the foundation in place before the economy turned around. We were prepared in advance of the good things that have been happening in the Midlands.”

Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398

COLUMBIA METROPOLITAN AIRPORT TRAFFIC TAKING OFF

Total passengers

2014 – 1,034,824

2015 – 1,059,127

+2.35 percent

Departing passengers

2014 – 513,769

2015 – 546,385

+ 6.35 percent

Arriving passengers

2014 – 531,055

2015 – 512,554

+ 1.63 percent

Source: Columbia Metropolitan Airport

Total Columbia Metropolitan Airport passengers

2012

2013

2014

2015

1,014,749

1,018,883

1,034,824

1,059,127

Source: Columbia Metropolitan Airport

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