Airport wants to keep fee: Extension of $4.50 charge to help fund terminal makeover

An estimated $143 million makeover is planned for Charleston International Airport.

LEROY BURNELL

Charleston International Airport wants to extend its $4.50 fee on departing passengers by about 18 months to help pay for proposed expansion of the terminal.

The airport has notified the Federal Aviation Administration that it needs to raise an additional $6.9 million from the passenger facility charge to help pay for design and program management of the terminal-redevelopment project.

The estimated $143 million makeover of the 26-year-old terminal includes extending both concourses, adding a third baggage carousel, adding hundreds of new parking spaces and redesigning other areas to keep up with the growing number of passengers, update the aging airport and reconfigure it to meet new security standards.

The maximum $4.50 fee allowed by the FAA first started at Charleston International in March 2010 and is set to expire Dec. 1. If the extension is granted, the fee will be assessed on every outgoing ticket until June 1, 2013, said Sue Stevens, airports director for the Charleston County Aviation Authority.

Airlines tack the charge onto their fares and then forward the money to the airport. They keep 2.4 percent, or 11 cents per ticket, as a management fee.

Charleston was one of the last larger airports in the country to assess the fee, which the FAA first authorized in 1992. "We knew we had this big project coming, and we saved it for a rainy day," Stevens said.

Charleston International has raised $6.2 million since the fee was first imposed. It was authorized to collect more than $7.9 million through Dec. 1. The additional collection would take the total amount to $14.8 million.

The majority of the funds --

$11.9 million -- will pay for pre-construction costs of the terminal-expansion project.

The rest of the money has been or will be spent on terminal roof repairs, improving boarding bridges, upgrading the heating and air-conditioning system and updating the baggage makeup area in the belly of the airport to accommodate the Transportation Security Administration, which took over baggage handling from airlines after 9/11.

The airport gets no funds from property taxes. Its revenue comes from the FAA, tenants and the passenger-facility charge, Stevens said.

"The fee is a way to pay for improvements at the airport," Stevens said.

The airport saw just over 1 million departing passengers in 2010, averaging more than 2,700 passengers a day, a number that likely will increase this year after Southwest Airlines launched service out of Charleston in March.

The airport consulted the airlines about the proposed fee extension, but received no comments from them. "They typically support it because it keeps their rates and charges low," Stevens said. "If not, we would have to get all of the money through the airlines."

The airport will now submit the application to the FAA, which has 30 days to respond, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.

Other airports in South Carolina that collect the fee include those in Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

Columbia started collecting a $3 fee in 1993 and switched to $4.50 in 2001. It is authorized to collect $70.5 million through 2028. Myrtle Beach started collecting a $3 fee in 1996, then went to $4.50 in 2001. It collected $28 million through 2007 and is authorized to collect an additional $104 million through 2031.

Airports in Hilton Head and Florence have collected a $3 fee in the past, but no longer do so.

Stevens said Charleston International will ask for a longer-term passenger fee once it has solid cost estimates on the airport renovation project. "Now is not the time to do that," she said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.