Airport Director Pens Op-Ed Challenging Community to Rethink CAE

In 2010, when I took the role of Columbia Metropolitan Airport’s Executive Director, the community’s perception of the airport was telling.  Often, when asked about the airport, the response from residents tended to be some variation of either “We have a great little airport but it costs too much to fly out of there.” or “It’s a beautiful facility, too bad they only fly to Charlotte and Atlanta.”

There is no doubt that 2010 was a difficult year for us at Columbia Metropolitan Airport; airport costs were high, enplanements had dropped by nearly 32% in just a five year timespan and Southwest Airlines sidestepped Columbia in favor of Charleston and Greenville.  Not to mention mounting changes industrywide with looming mergers and reductions in the once popular 50 seat regional jets.  With so many challenges ahead of us, it isn’t surprising that the community was less than enthusiastic about its hometown airport.

We knew that changes had to be made and so began the process of reimagining how we do business. We streamlined operations, diversified revenue and reduced overall debt by $18 million.  These steps allowed us to engage airlines on a new level and the airlines serving CAE responded by restructuring their pricing model and upgrading equipment.

What does this mean for the community?  It means that our passengers have begun to see more competitive fares and more first and business class seating options.

Our updated business model also challenged us to redefine our role as an economic engine.  The airport’s direct economic impact already stood at $85.7 million with over 6,500 local jobs stemming from our presence and we wanted to ensure that those numbers were representative of our entire community. So, within a two year timeframe, we increased the amount of business done with minority and women owned business from less than 10% to over 40%.

What does this mean for local business?  It means that Columbia Metropolitan Airport’s economic reach has been expanded to give under-represented businesses an opportunity to make their own impact on the local economy.

Lastly, we have redoubled our efforts to be good environmental stewards.  Our Capital Improvement Plan includes over $50 million in projects to be completed between 2012 and 2018.  These projects range from runway and road rehabilitation to terminal improvements to a new, state of the art fire station. Each project includes a laundry list of certified green elements that meet GreenSpec, Energy Star and International Energy Conservation Code requirements. In fact, Columbia Metropolitan Airport was among the first airports in the country to install energy efficient LED lighting on its runways and in its parking garage.

What does this mean for the region?  It means reduced noise, air, water and ground pollution.  It means increased efficiency and lower costs and it means an even more beautiful Midlands for generations to come.