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Charleston International Airport expects rising demand to drive construction

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After closing the books on a $200 million terminal renovation project, Charleston International Airport has started planning several new expansion projects related to parking, airline ticketing counters and terminal space.

Tourists continue to respond to Charleston’s pull, bringing millions of travelers to the region each year; and more business travelers and residents are flying in and out as the industrial, tech and manufacturing sectors expand along with the region’s population.

Hernan Pena, vice president of engineering, said the airport plans to build a second parking garage, expand the existing surface lot and extend the airport’s drop-off loop farther out. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Airport by the numbers

3.7 million: Passengers came through Charleston International Airport in 2016.

4.2 million: Passengers expected to fly in and out of CHS in 2017.

13.5%: Expected increase in passengers coming to Charleston International in 2017 compared with 2016.

2 million: Passengers expected to arrive in the region in 2017.

Source: Charleston County Aviation Authority

Charleston International Airport is on track to handle more than 4 million passengers this year — a record for the state’s busiest airport.

Hernan Pena, the aviation authority’s engineering vice president, said planning and building for the influx of travelers needs to be balanced with the possibility of building too much, too soon.

Pena said some airports across the country have a philosophy of avoiding expansions until passenger counts demand them, often creating crowded airports; others build far ahead of such congestion.

Building in advance means an airport stands ready for growth, but the costs of renovating and expanding can increase the cost per enplanement — the fees airlines pay to airports divided by the number of enplaned passengers. An expensive rate can deter an airline from bringing new service to an airport.

“There are benefits and detriments to both. If you don’t plan ahead, and you have the crowd there, it takes years to plan and construct. ... But if you build too soon, you’re starting to pay on those bonds and you need the revenue from those passengers,” Pena said. “The key is to be in the middle — to be ahead of the game, but not too ahead of the game. That’s what we try to do here.”

Strategic growth

State Sen. Paul Campbell, the CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, said he anticipates the region’s growth to continue in the coming years, spurring the staff to plan for future expansions. The airport has both a five- and 10-year strategic plan.

The recently completed four-year terminal redevelopment project changed the entire layout, look and operations from the airport’s 1980s facade, which was designed for far fewer travelers and airlines.

The makeover added five gates, nine restaurants and seven shops. A consolidated, expanded security checkpoint and new baggage claim area opened.

“If we hadn’t expanded when we did ... we would not have gotten the air service that we have or been able to accommodate the passengers,” Campbell said.

Extensive renovations of the taxiways and runways also wrapped up, readying the airport’s flight infrastructure for at least 15 more years of use.

While the airside is ready for growth, airport officials are looking for ways to further expand operations.

Passenger counts surpassed 2025 projections before the renovation opened. Airport parking strains to handle the number of travelers. Airlines are squeezed for space, and the airport lacks the room for new ones.

“We’ve got to stay ahead of the game because people are coming, and we can’t get behind. ... We need to keep our heads above water and make sure our strategic plan accounts for future growth,” Campbell said.

Airline ticketing counters at Charleston International Airport are now at capacity. Airport officials expect to expand the check-in area into the adjacent employee parking lot, providing additional counter space for future airlines and passengers. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

More gates, larger terminal

The airport studied its 15 existing gates to determine how effectively they are being used and whether more operations could be squeezed out of existing space to stave off another terminal expansion. The airport has one unused gate and two that are not fully engaged, Campbell said.

Airlines at Charleston’s airport are shifting away from regional jets and toward widebody aircraft, meaning the airport handles more passengers but fewer aircraft than in previous years.

With passenger counts rising and the Charleston region growing, Campbell said he anticipates beginning a Concourse C addition by 2023.

A third concourse would likely be built where the existing rental car area sits, adjacent to the baggage claim area. This would require a relocation of rental car operations. Another option would be to extend Concourse B, adding gates as needed.

On the other side of the terminal, airline ticketing counters are now at capacity. New airlines bringing service to Charleston would either share space with another company or work at a makeshift counter space.

Airport officials expect to expand the check-in area into the adjacent employee parking lot, providing additional counter space for future airlines and passengers.

“On both sides of the airport, we’re looking for places to grow,” Pena said. “Those two projects are a little bit down the road, but we really have to watch it with 2 million enplanements this year and the continued growth.”

Parking expansions, road projects

With a newly renovated terminal and runway network, airport officials are now turning their attention to expanding on-site parking capacity.

Travelers can use taxis, Uber or Lyft; get dropped off; ride the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority’s airport service; or park at an off-site parking garage. But for those looking to park at the terminal, options are often limited, officials said.

“That’s the area that is feeling the pressure,” Pena said. “That’s the area that hasn’t seen the investment.”

Campbell said the existing, 1,200-space parking deck reaches capacity several times a week. Airport staff and board members plan to build a 3,000-space parking deck next to the existing one.

The new deck will be built on part of the surface parking lot that sits directly behind the existing garage. The surface parking lot has about 2,300 spaces.

To re-accommodate the surface spaces that will be lost to the second parking garage, two other projects are in the works. Part of the circular road that acts as a drop-off loop in front of the airport terminal will be extended out along International Boulevard, creating additional space into which the surface parking lot can expand.

Once these projects are completed, the circular loop will be wider, the surface parking lot will be larger and the airport will have two parking garages. Pena expects those projects to wrap up by 2020 and cost an estimated $130 million.

Final costs will vary depending on garage amenities, such as reserved parking for business travelers or license plate recognition technology. A combination of Federal Aviation Authority grants, airport revenue and revenue bonds likely will be used to pay for the parking and road projects, Campbell said.

The airport could eventually have up to four parking garages alongside one another.

“Relocating the road then allows for that in the future,” Pena said. “It sets the stage for that growth.”

The cellphone and employee parking lots also will see expansions in the coming years.

Rental car changes

The rental car operations likely will need additional space as well. No plans are defined at this point, but those operations could expand in their existing space or relocate into a parking deck.

Fuel capacity uptick

The airport plans to expand its fuel farm — an area on airport land that houses fuel tanks.

Airlines use the fuel for commercial flights, and Boeing South Carolina pumps fuel to its neighboring campus for 787 Dreamliner customer deliveries and Dreamlifter operations.

The Dreamlifter ferries sections of some Dreamliners from Boeing’s North Charleston site to Everett, Wash., for final assembly, and brings sections from the company’s global supply chain to be worked on in North Charleston.

The fuel farm expansion project likely will cost between $7 million and $10 million. Design work is expected to begin this year, and a construction start date has not been determined.

Pena said the airport needs to have enough fuel to handle the airport’s needs, supply Boeing’s expanding operations and maintain a reserve.

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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