Airlines resumed service Sunday at Charleston International Airport following four days of canceled flights brought on by last week's winter storm that left the runways of the state’s busiest airport covered in ice and snow.
The second of two runways, which are owned by Joint Base Charleston, was running by mid-afternoon, according to Marvin Krause, a base spokesman. The first runway re-opened Saturday afternoon, but flights didn’t resume until Sunday morning.
The runways were closed during Wednesday’s storm that dumped 5.3 inches of snow and ice on the airfield, forcing passengers to scramble to make other arrangements as the shutdown dragged into the weekend.
Following a vacation with his 13-year-old daughter, Eric Cape of Mount Pleasant opted to fly into Columbia on Friday after the Charleston airport closure left them stranded in Philadelphia.
But Cape couldn’t find a one-way rental car from Columbia, so he drove home to drop off his daughter, then drove back to Columbia the following day to return the rental car. Then he had to get a ride back to Mount Pleasant.
“It was a lot of rigmarole to get through the final steps,” Cape said.
Airport CEO Paul Campbell said freezing rain that turned to ice underneath the layer of snow made clearing the runways doubly tough for an airport that's not equipped to deal with such conditions.
In the days following the storm, the Air Force originally believed thawing from the sunlight would de-ice the airstrip, but that didn’t happen fast. Temperatures rose above freezing during the daytime hours but dove back down overnight, causing snowmelt to refreeze to slick swaths of ice.
By Saturday, Charleston International Airport remained the only airport in the Southeast that was effectively closed. Campbell said airlines were given the option to resume flights Saturday, but he suspected they were largely “disjointed” due to the storm that snarled flights along the East Coast.
“We were probably not the best, not the worst,” Campbell said Sunday of the airport's response. “Next time, we would try to have a little more corrective action early on.”
The Air Force doesn't keep specialized equipment such as snowplows and de-icing chemicals around for an airport that rarely sees significant snowfall, and Campbell said he can't fault the Air Force for that. The last time the area saw comparable snowfall was just before Christmas in 1989, when 6 inches fell in one day.
“How do you plan for a 30-year event? You just gotta roll with the punches and see what happens,” he said.
At the airport Sunday night, passengers such as Liz Brisson of Vermont took the inconvenience in stride. Her flight, originally scheduled for Thursday, was rebooked three times. She finally arrived Sunday evening, but then her bag went missing.
“Of course this area’s not accustomed to this type of weather, so you have to be kind of flexible. That’s my word for the year is patience, and I’m being tested,” she said with a laugh while waiting to file a claim with American Airlines for her missing bag.
Phillip Reeder of Summerville waited at baggage claim for his 14-year-old stepson while joined by his wife, two daughters, nephew and niece. His stepson was originally supposed to fly in from Los Angeles on Saturday night. While Reeder said the rescheduling caused some stress, his family recognized there was nothing they could do about it.
“That’s just a process of life. That’s part of living down here,” he said.
Elizabeth Moffly, a former Charleston County School Board member, also took a lighthearted approach to the mishaps set in motion by the storm. Following a vacation in British Columbia, she and her family flew to Atlanta and then drove to Charleston due to a canceled flight. They picked up their luggage from the airport Sunday night, but Moffly said they barely made it in a lemon of a rental car.
"We got here, the car’s shuttering. And then the lights started flashing as my husband was taking it to the rental car company. And then it died in the intersection," she said.
As most airlines resumed normal service, incoming and outgoing flights with Southwest Airlines and JetBlue were canceled Sunday. The airport continued to advise passengers to check with their individual airlines to confirm the status of their flights.
“We ask that passengers be patient as airline teams at CHS work to rebook passengers in the coming days,” the airport said in a news release.