Optimists learn about airport improvements 

Mike Gula, Executive Director of Columbia Metropolitan Airport, spoke on May 6 to the Optimist Club of St. Andrews-Irmo.

The club’s speaker host was member Rick Calhoun, who happens to be a commercial pilot. In his presentation, Gula brought the club up to date on the current status of the airport and projects that are underway.

Pre-COVID, i.e. the first quarter of 2019, the airport was on pace to enjoy a record year of activity. At that time, the three types of travelers, in descending order, were business travelers, military personnel, and leisure travelers.

The two ends of that continuum have mostly inverted with leisure travelers leading the way, military/Ft. Jackson volume holding steady, and a depleted business traveler segment. During the height of the pandemic, with volume off sharply, the airport was still able to keep its personnel employed. The rebuilding process has been gradual, in direct proportion to the easing of Pandemic restrictions, and today’s flights are 74 percent full.

A constant throughout COVID has been the UPS regional hub, whose activity declined slightly because of supply chain issues; however, that volume did not experience the sharp downturn that impacted the airport’s passenger business. The hub continues to be the sixth-largest in the UPS system.

In no particular order, contemporaneous projects are underway to streamline parking, to enhance ticketing, to expedite baggage, and to conduct airfield conditions and paving.

Parking rates at the airport have not increased since 2004. The layout of the parking facilities is such that no parking space is more than 150 yards from the terminal. The lot is easy to enter and easy to exit. However, once on-site, it has been difficult to find garage parking, particularly if the traveler is pushed for time. The latest improvement within the garage has been the installation of LED indicators at every parking space. The lights are red or green, depending on the situation, so it is much easier to find a vacancy rather than orbiting the lot. 

The second improvement relates to an added payment option. It is not uncommon for leisure travelers to deplete their funds during a vacation of 7 or more days and then return to the airport with a substantial parking fee. The airport has implemented an online system with reduced rates for pre-booking.

Future needs that Gula cited are locating an on-property hotel and attracting a low-cost carrier to supplement American, Delta, and United. The gate capacity is available to make that addition possible.