Aviation gives region a big lift

Charleston International Airport, the Air Force Base and Boeing Co. (upper left), pump $13.9 billion into the region’s economy and support more than 51,000 jobs, according to a new study from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Business Research.

The Charleston region’s aviation sector fuels a juggernaut of jobs and money, accounting for 40 percent of the region’s economy.

That’s the assessment by a new study showing that in just four years the local aviation industry, fueled mainly by Boeing Co.’s growth, has doubled its economic impact to nearly $14 billion.

But it’s not all because of Boeing’s airplane manufacturing complex.

The 55 percent rise in passenger count at Charleston International Airport since 2010 and the presence of Charleston Air Force Base also drive the aviation-related economy, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Business Research reported.

The airport, the Air Force base and the Boeing campus together pump $13.9 billion into the three-county area and support more than 51,000 jobs locally, or 16 percent of the total in the region, said Mary Graham, the chamber’s chief advancement officer.

Also, the study shows the aviation industry accounts for $3 billion in pay for local workers.

“The aviation sector is not only growing, it is a significant part of the economy,” Graham said.

In 2011, a similar study by the chamber showed the aviation industry injected nearly $7 billion into the local economy, supported 34,000 jobs and accounted for 12 percent of the three-county’s total work force. The aviation cluster then accounted for 24 percent of the region’s economy, Graham said.

The direct economic impact alone from the aviation industry comes in at $9.9 billion and accounts for 30 percent of the regional economy. The $13.9 billion includes direct and indirect impacts.

While 40 percent of the local workforce is dominated by the aviation sector, Graham cautioned that it probably won’t remain that high as other sectors such as biomedical, information technology and wind energy pick up speed in the region.

“Clearly, the difference is Boeing’s growth during that period,” Graham said of the past four years. “Aircraft and aircraft parts manufacturing are among the highest impact sectors an economy can have.”

Boeing alone accounts for more than $11 billion in economic activity locally. The assembler and parts-maker for the 787 Dreamliner directly employs 8,200 workers at its main campus off International Boulevard and other local sites, sustaining another 20,000 jobs in the region through spin-off industries in every sector from dry cleaners to restaurants.

Four years ago, Boeing employed 5,000 people. Since then, it’s opened a new overhead bin-making plant, added more engineers and factory-floor workers and expanded into other facilities in North Charleston.

Boeing’s growth will continue when it adds a new paint hangar for the Dreamliner in 2016 and begins production in 2017 on the 787-10, the largest version of the wide-body jet.

Charleston International has not been quiet either, Graham said.

New airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue and added air routes during the period propelled the airport to record-setting passenger growth.

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“The airport is now an economic engine for our economy,” Graham said. “Because of the property Boeing uses at the airport and the airport growing to over 3 million passengers a year, you are seeing the airport as part of the significant economic activity.”

The airport and its tenants create 3,915 jobs, while air-traveling visitors, who average a three-night stay, account for another 6,181 jobs as they spend $450 million in the region’s hotels, restaurants, shops and services, according to the study.

All told, the airport’s economic impact comes in at about $1.1 billion.

The Air Force, which owns the runways at the airport, employs 7,300 active-duty and civilian workers in North Charleston, but the impact is far less than Boeing’s. Still, its presence and spin-off support 5,000 other jobs in the region for a total economic impact of more than $1.7 billion. The study did not include other military facilities in the area.

Also, the economic impact study does not include the $189 million makeover of the terminal at Charleston International, since it is confined to a three-year construction period to conclude this year. But the study said separately the terminal overhaul adds 1,400 direct and indirect jobs and $211 million to the local economy.

“The economic impact of the whole aviation corridor continues to grow for the entire Trident region,” said Paul Campbell, airports director for the Charleston County Aviation Authority. “And it’s going to get better and better.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.