It increasingly feels like the days are getting back to normal at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
Last year, the West Columbia hub exceeded 1 million passengers for the first time since COVID-19, continuing its march back to the 10-year passenger record it set in 2019. Boosting those numbers is expected to continue, as recent months have found the airport restocking its selection of direct flights, adding seasonal service to Miami and doubling up its airline options for New York and Chicago.
And there are other indications of the airport returning to its former self, including restarting the in-terminal therapy dog program that went offline due to the pandemic.
“It's definitely gotten better. We're still about 85% of where we were in 2019, pre-pandemic,” Mike Gula, the airport’s executive director, told the Chronicle. “But with these flights being added, I mean, this year we should be able to get back to our 2019 numbers.”
But getting back to normal isn’t so much the point. As it was before and during the pandemic, the airport continues looking to improve with several ongoing projects.
And it’s getting some federal help in this regard. The airport was recently announced as one of two in South Carolina, and the only commercial service airport in the state, to receive 2023 funding through President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, getting $5 million from the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Terminals Program.
The money is set to help with a project to improve the airport’s Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, which Gula said is a key effort in improving the passenger experience.
“So when the airport was redone in 1994, it was pre-TSA,” Gula said of the project the airport hopes to start this summer. “We kind of have a choke point at our checkpoint. In order to be able to keep up in the next five years, we need to expand that because the equipment that we're going to be receiving is going to be a lot larger than what we currently have. So it really bodes well with the FAA as far as prioritizing it.”
He added that with or without the federal money, the airport’s increasing number of enplanements would have necessitated the airport finding a way to make this upgrade.
“It will be a huge improvement to how we operate, and it will allow the passenger a better experience to be able to get through the checkpoint even quicker than they can today,” Gula said.
The most visible of the airport’s other ongoing projects is also directly targeted at making the experience of arriving and getting on a flight more comfortable and expedient.
Gula said the airport is about 95% through its $1 million project to improve its airline ticket counters and install an in-line baggage system, which moves the processing of bags behind the scenes. This means there are no more clunky scanners sitting out in the lobby and passengers will no longer have to cart their checked luggage to a second location to have it stowed for travel, instead handing it over at the ticket counter.
The project is expected to wrap by the end of this month, the executive director told the Chronicle.
Included in this effort is 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.
Increasing airlines’ flexibility to add flights is crucial, Gula and Director of Marketing and Air Service Development Kim Crafton explained, because it will help them attract more direct flights to more locations. The airport currently offers nonstop service to nine airports in 10 U.S. cities, with three of those cities being served by two airlines (including New York, to which Delta Airlines is set to add a second daily flight in August).
The importance of expanding this selection goes beyond attracting passengers with additional options, Gula said.
“It creates competition,” he explained. “That helps keep down the airfare prices.”
Gula added that the airport has several other projects happening that are “not as sexy,” including airfield work, concrete improvements, improvements to taxiways and adding a brand-new customs facility. The airport is also in the process of shaping a new master plan, which it does every 10 to 15 years, with the result set to shape the airport’s priorities for the next decade.
The end goal of all these efforts is to make the Columbia hub one that residents choose to use instead of flying out of other nearby airports.
“Every person that flat chooses to fly through this airport, it really does matter,” Crafton said. “And we thank them and we want them to continue utilizing this airport. We see a good amount of leakage to other airports, namely ones that are outside of the state, and we want to keep those dollars here in South Carolina.”\