Diverted flights to Charleston airport over past 12 months:
Charleston County Aviation Authority
On July 19, a United Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to Bogota, Colombia, diverted to Charleston International Airport because of medical issues with two passengers.
It was the most recent in a rising number of unscheduled flights to the North Charleston airport.
Over the past 12 months, Charleston International has seen 35 diverted flights, or flights not originally scheduled to land at the airport.
Twenty-three of those occurred during the past six months, for an average of almost four flights a month since January. Nine of those unscheduled stops were in May.
For comparison, the airport saw 48 diverted flights for the previous 12 months from July 2012 to June 2013.
Because of the increased frequency of diverted flights, some at night when the airport isn't fully staffed, Airports Director Paul Campbell will ask the Charleston County Aviation Authority board of directors in a special meeting Tuesday for an 11 percent increase in staffing. Four of the 17 new positions he is requesting will be for operations, which oversees unscheduled landings, among other things.
"We just need more people on the operational side to handle diversions," Campbell said. "Sometimes we have to scramble to get somebody in here at night."
The three main reasons flights divert to Charleston are medical emergencies, weather and mechanical issues, Campbell said.
Because the airport shares the runways with Charleston Air Force Base, which owns them, it has fairly complicated navigational aids that other nearby airports don't have.
"You can almost land with a zero ceiling in Charleston," Campbell said, referring to low cloud cover.
The airport also offers a 9,000-foot runway and a 7,000-foot landing strip to handle jets of any size. The Air Force uses them for its fleet of C-17 cargo planes, and Boeing uses the runways for its 787-8 Dreamliners, which are fully assembled beside the airport.
Charleston International generally doesn't have any scheduled commercial flights in late overnight hours, but pilots know they can land in Charleston around the clock.
"We can land planes here at any time because of the Air Force Base," Campbell said.
Charleston is also on the direct flight path of the heavily traveled corridor between the big cities of the Northeast and points south, including Florida. That tends to increase diversions as well, Campbell said.
While medical issues are rare, he said pilots choose Charleston because they know medical care is not too far away.
The United flight that landed just over a week ago resulted in two passengers being taken to Roper St. Francis Hospital, one with chest pains and another with a stomach problem. In each instance, the passenger and two others traveling with them left the flight before it continued on to Bogota.
Thunder squalls at this time of year can also spike the number of diversions as pilots try to avoid rough weather, Campbell said.
Mechanical problems could involve anything, but 90 percent of the time it's not serious, he said. Those, for instance, include sensors showing a problem in a baggage hold when it turns out to be false or someone smoking in a bathroom that causes a sensor to go off, Campbell said.
The Federal Aviation Administration does not maintain records on flight diversions, spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
The remaining new staff members Campbell will recommend include four police officers, one police supervisor, six maintenance mechanics, a vehicle mechanic and a systems technician for information technology.
He will also recommend one upgraded position for administrative assistant Tammy Alexander to director of administration, boosting her salary from $65,000 to nearly $100,000.
The requested new staff members equal an 11 percent rise in airport personnel. The authority now has 154 full-time workers and six part-timers. The authority oversees Charleston International and two smaller airports in Mount Pleasant and on Johns Island.
The airport is undergoing a nearly $200 million makeover, including $10 million in improvements by concessionaires. It's adding five new gates to its current 10, consolidating security checkpoints and making numerous other changes to meet passenger demand. Last year, it saw 2.9 million passengers, but that number is expected to soar to nearly 4 million over the next decade or so.
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