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With just 3 airlines, Columbia airport struggles to stem passenger loss to nearby rivals

WEST COLUMBIA — Columbia Metropolitan Airport is light and airy. It's easy to get in and out of. Passengers can rest in wooden rocking chairs or gaze at the intricately landscaped water feature as they roll their bags to the gates. 

The capital city's airport offers all the amenities of any similar metro-area airfield, and it sits in the middle of the state.

That's where the problem comes in. Geography is the airport's biggest enemy.

Its proximity to much larger Charlotte Douglas International and busier airports across South Carolina works against it. 

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A passenger waits for his plane in a rocking chair at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Served by just three airlines — American, Delta and United — Columbia's ticket prices are often higher than those at nearby airports offering more flights through more airlines to more destinations.

During the first three months of this year, flying round-trip from Columbia cost roughly $100 more than Charleston, $55 more than Greenville and $140 more than Myrtle Beach, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Discount carriers, like those in Charleston, Greenville and Myrtle Beach, don't serve the Midlands airport. The last ones there were Allegiant and Spirit. They left Columbia in 2009 and didn't return.

Steep decline

Columbia's airport serves the metro area of the Midlands with more than 832,000 people, but it's by no means the busiest terminal in the state.

That distinction belongs to Charleston International, where last year 4.5 million ticket holders arrived and departed. Greenville-Spartanburg's airport comes in second, and Myrtle Beach International is slightly behind at third.

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Pv2 Gabriel Russel listens as Pfc. Wyatt Setian plays a piano in the Columbia Metropolitan Airport while they wait for flights home after graduating from Fort Jackson Army Training Center in late August. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Columbia, with 1.2 million last year, is a distant fourth. About 96,000, or 8 percent, of passengers were soldiers from Fort Jackson, the Army's expansive military training base on the city's eastern edge.

In addition to a corridor inscription that welcomes travelers to "The Most Military Friendly Community in America," the airport offers a special room where soldiers can sit back in soft recliners in a room tucked beneath the clack of an escalator.

Though passenger counts are rising, they were much higher before the deep economic downturn a decade ago. In 2005, Columbia's terminal ferried nearly 1.5 million passengers coming and going. It hasn't hit that mark since then.

The airport's passenger numbers went into a steep decline during and after the Great Recession, falling below 1 million in 2011. They have slowly inched their way back but not to pre-downturn levels. So far this year through July, arrivals and departures show 17 percent improvement over the first seven months of 2018, offering promise for a return to numbers from nearly 15 years ago.

Flight control

The airport's three airlines offer more than 30 daily nonstop flights to seven cities and eight airports in the U.S. United will add a route to Houston in March, while American launches a daily flight to Miami in December.

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Military and civilian passengers wait to go through the security checkpoint at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Columbia's proximity to busier airports can work against it. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Columbia airport officials want more.

"We have open space for another airline, and we are working on getting one to go there," said Kim Jamieson, director of marketing and air service and a former employee of the state's tourism agency.

Jamieson said she believes the addition of a low-cost carrier will boost interest from outlying residents of the Columbia region who might consider nearby airports first, but no deal has been landed yet.

"The airlines are looking to see if a market is viable," Jamieson said. "We want to increase our passenger traffic, and we are working really hard on increasing our air service offerings. We have a great community. We want them to continue to fly local."

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Columbia Metropolitan Airport in West Columbia is South Carolina's fourth-busiest airport and is looking for ways to attract more passengers. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Stemming the bleed to Charlotte or other nearby airports is important.

In a recent statement about United resuming a nonstop flight to Houston amid better passenger numbers through mid-year, airport Executive Director Mike Gula emphasized that point.

"It's great to see more and more of the community supporting (the airport) by flying local, and we encourage everyone to continue doing so," Gula said.

Looking for a deal

Price-sensitive airline passengers of the Midlands know other options are available.

Lee Ann Lawrence of Chapin flew out of Greenville and Charlotte last year strictly because of the cost.

"If it's a lot cheaper out of there, then I will fly from there," she said while waiting on a flight in Columbia to visit family in Nevada with her mother, Polly Pearson, of Dalzell.

Lawrence prefers to fly out of Columbia because "it's easy to get in and out of," but she knows she can shop around, too. "I always look for the best price."

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Passengers wait for their flights in the Food Court in the post-security section at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Local travelers often shop around for the cheapest fares at airports in the region. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Vanessa Balima of northeast Columbia also bypassed Columbia's airport last year to fly to the West Coast.

She and her cousin chose Atlanta for their departure.

"It was cheaper to drive to Atlanta and fly to Los Angeles than to fly out of Columbia," Balima said as she and her family posed for pictures in Columbia's airport lobby to see her husband, Celestin, off on a trip to Africa. "For some reason, flights are more expensive here."

Columbia newcomer Katie Owens echoed her remarks.

"It's more expensive than flying out of Charlotte," the former Utah resident said.

Owens recently moved to the Midlands with her husband, Landon, who is in a residency program at a Midlands hospital.

She had to fly to Texas on business for a few days and she found it was cheaper to fly out of Charlotte and have her husband pick her up from the North Carolina airport. His work schedule didn't permit her to come back through Charlotte, so they settled on the Columbia flight, but it was not her first choice.

Midlands residents agree Columbia's terminal is "lovely" and "beautiful," but they also noted the downside of higher ticket prices and the promise of cheaper fares within driving distance.

Landing passengers

To boost airport use among Midlands residents, officials are talking it up at gatherings, meeting with airline representatives to tout upticks in passenger counts, recounting the region's history with wall displays to engage locals and spending more money on marketing — close to $200,000 more than in 2017, or just over $700,000 this year.

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Arriving passengers take the escalator to the baggage-claim area at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. A "Welcome to Columbia" ad greets them overhead. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

"We are being as proactive as we can," said Jamieson of efforts to boost passenger numbers and recruit a new carrier. "We try to showcase the airport and the region and a lot of the industries in the area." 

The airport is exploring a total rebranding campaign, though Jamieson pointed out the existing "Fly with ease" slogan might not go away.

To drive home that message, officials tout that ticket holders can get from the parking lot to the gates in about 12 to 15 minutes.

"We want the process to be as stress-free as possible," Jamieson said. "And we want people to see that when they choose to fly out of Columbia."

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Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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