Having recently set new post-COVID passenger mark, CAE to update master plan

Posted 2/20/24

Hard at work on a plan to take it into the future, the Columbia Metropolitan Airport hit another milestone in its recovery from the COVID-19 slowdown.

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Having recently set new post-COVID passenger mark, CAE to update master plan


Hard at work on a plan to take it into the future, the Columbia Metropolitan Airport hit another milestone in its recovery from the COVID-19 slowdown.

The West Columbia transit hub, the main airport serving the Midlands, reported a 16% increase in passengers between 2022 and 2023, following up its first year since the pandemic to surpass 1 million passengers with 1.2 million passengers last year.

The gains in traffic come as the airport continues a wave of improvements targeted at making itself more attractive to potential travelers.

Last year, the airport completed a $20 million project to improve airline ticket counters and install an in-line baggage system, which moves the processing of bags behind the scenes. The change did away with clunky scanners sitting out in the lobby and made it so passengers can hand over their checked luggage at the ticket counter, where previously they had to cart bags to a second location to have it stowed for travel.

[Online copy corrected.]

Included in this effort was the installation of a common use system for the ticket counters, which will allow airlines to much more easily shift or add ticket counters, facilitating adjustments to the services they offer — hopefully helping the airport attract more direct and cost-effective flights.

The transit hub also upgraded its Transportation Security Administration checkpoints (with help from a $5 million Federal Aviation Administration Airport Terminals Program grant).

The airport is also in the midst of a wholesale revamp of its food and beverage offerings, which included the addition of an in-terminal Samuel Adams Brewhouse.

The hope is that improvements like these will continue to boost traffic through the airport and attract more carriers — which the airport is already doing, adding new nonstop flights to Chicago and New York and bringing back a previous seasonal service to Miami.

But there’s still more to do, both in terms of continuing to make the airport more competitive with larger close-by airports in Charlotte and Atlanta that frequently lure away potential travelers and in terms of bolstering the shipping operations that are crucial to both the airport and the region it serves.

“From the airport side, we're looking at every facet from garage to gate,” said Kim Crafton, the airport’s vice president of marketing and air service development. “From the consumer side, we want it to be a seamless process, as soon as they drive onto the airport campus and they fly out, it to be a really efficient, expedited and comfortable experience the whole time that they're here.”

The next steps in optimizing these areas and others are what the airport hopes to more clearly identify and strategize for as it puts together its next master plan. The document, required to be updated about every 10 years by the FAA, looks forward to the next couple decades and sets priorities as far as improving and maintaining its facilities and fulfilling the needs and wants of travelers and shipping clients.

In keeping with the airport’s emphasis on continuing to do a better job fulfilling passenger wants and needs, it is bringing in the community much more than it has in the past in assembling its next guiding document.

In addition to surveying passengers in the terminal, the airport has posted an online survey that community members can fill out through June 30.

“The last time we did the master plan, it was very internally focused,” explained Frank Murray, the airport’s vice president of planning and engineering, who is at the heart of the master plan process. “We had some community outreach, but it was really just to explain to them the plan that we had. We had so much internal improvement we needed to make, a lot of old systems. Even when they upgraded the terminal in the mid-’90s, a lot of the systems were old. We didn't upgrade all the bagging systems. We didn't upgrade all the air conditioning systems. So the last master plan really had to identify a lot of things that just needed to be improved to get caught up.”

The amount which they’ve caught up shows through in the airport’s traffic gains, especially when you consider where it was before the pandemic. It capped a period of consistent growth in 2019, when it set a 10-year record with 1.35 million passengers traveling through the airport, a 13.03% increase from the previous 10-year record it set in 2018.

But while identifying new ways to attract passengers and carriers — including the low-cost carriers for which residents regularly clamor — will continue to be an emphasis, there’s another crucial area of focus the master plan process will look to address.

“The other piece that we're trying to really [include] in our bigger picture master plan is our cargo operations,” Murray said.

That’s a piece that will continue to be crucial, both for the airport and the region, which continues to push for more economic development. Murray singled out the $2 billion electric vehicle plant Scout Motors is building in Blythewood as an example of a business whose needs the airport is actively assessing to make sure it can keep up with their demand.

At a recent Lexington Chamber forum featuring two of the region’s key economic developers —, Jason Giulietti, president and CEO of the Central SC Alliance, and Garrett Dragano, director of economic development for Lexington County — they spoke to the role the airport plays in continuing to secure new investments.

“We always make sure to put ... CAE is there and how important that airport is to us as a driver in the region,” Giulietti said of how the transit hub enhances companies ability to quickly and efficiently move materials and products.

The team at the airport understands how important the facility is in this regard, which is why cargo will be a huge emphasis for the master plan.

We want to be really up to date with our understanding of what UPS is wanting to do, what FedEx is wanting to do, what their plans are, what some of the businesses in our community are doing,” Murray said.

columbia metropolitan airport, lexington county business, midlands economic development, cae master plan


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