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Passenger growth pushes CHS airport to expand plans

Hospitality and Tourism
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Passenger numbers at Charleston International Airport are rising so quickly that the recent renovations and expansion are already insufficient to handle projected passenger counts. Airport officials say they will have to ramp up strategic planning to account for the growth. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Charleston International Airport’s recently completed terminal expansion and makeover is already insufficient to handle the volume of travelers expected in the coming years.

Future upgrades and additional square footage are part of a new five-year strategic plan designed to address the uptick in travelers.

“While we enjoy success today, we have to be cognizant of the fact that growth and change is likely to continue in the future,” said Hernan Pena, Charleston County Aviation Authority’s engineering vice president. “We are already at 2025 projections for passenger traffic, so passengers keep coming and the demand for airport services will continue to increase, so more change is on the way.”

More than 3.7 million people traveled in and out of the airport in 2016, up 8.4% from the prior year. The authority expects more than 4 million travelers in 2017.

Passenger volumes have already surpassed the estimates that were used to design the newly finished terminal improvements, which include an expansion of the security checkpoint and the addition of five more gates.

Airport officials have said the Charleston region’s continued increase in population, as well as growth in the manufacturing, health care, tourism and tech industries, are indicators that more travelers will flock to the airport in the coming years. Charleston now ranks as the 14th fastest-growing metro area in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The continual additions of nonstop flights to U.S. cities also attracts travelers from the region and around the state.

“Nothing could have prepared us for the great growth we have seen in recent years,” Pena said. “The way we did things 20, 10 and even five years ago is not good enough. We have to transition into a new way of thinking, governance and doing business.”

More than 160 Charleston County Aviation Authority employees gave input on the 2017-2021 plan, which was presented to airport board members last month.

The airport wants to expand capacity and services to handle more passengers, which means more space for airlines’ ticketing and check-in counters and more on-site parking options.

The construction of a Concourse C is a possibility, although authority CEO Paul Campbell said the airport will first look at maximizing space, such as having airlines share some of the check-in desks on the secure side of the terminal.

The authority also is planning to add more on-site parking. Previous plans to build two parking garages might transition to building one parking deck with the option to add two floors later. Board Vice Chairman Walter Hundley said the option for one garage saves land and money while preventing the possibility of overbuilding if future travelers rely more on public transit, Uber or taxis, for example.

The airport also wants to add more flights — including international routes — and enhance the passenger experience from inside the airport.

The recently completed, $200 million terminal makeover has given the airport a big boost in terms of overall appearance and traveler comfort and experience. The previously dark, outdated terminal from the 1980s, which had an inefficient layout, has been made over with white tile, floor-to-ceiling windows, new furniture with USB chargers and more restaurants and shops.

The airport now wants to boost cell phone service in the terminal, improve signage to help travelers find their way and design a more welcoming entrance.

“It is imperative that we dedicate and concentrate our efforts on the passenger experience,” Pena said. “Recent aviation studies have shown that by 2020, 86% of passengers will be interested in the passenger experience over price and product. ... We really have to invest in developing the strategies that allow us to become the best passenger-experience airport in the United States.”

Airport officials also said they want to invest in improving security technology and protocols. A complete assessment to analyze vulnerable areas and any needed upgrades is on the table. The aviation authority staff also wants additional training for airport employees and police officers to better prepare for the possibility of an active shooter or terrorist threat.

The strategic plans require that the authority generates sustainable, growing revenue, said Henry Fishburne, authority board member and chairman of the finance committee.

Parking, rental cars and airport concessions generate the bulk of non-airline revenues currently, the 2016 financial report shows. Fishburne said revenue streams need to be diversified and increased to handle future projects.

“We want to be financially successful, and we want to plan for a future that is not totally clear,” Fishburne said. “It all looks good, but we just digested one huge financial transaction with the TRIP program (Terminal Redevelopment and Improvement Program), and now we’re looking at another one with the parking garage.”

The authority plans to research the possibility of expanding its cargo services, as well as other land-use and real estate development opportunities. The authority also will study the best use of terminal space to determine whether some areas could house another restaurant, for-rent community meeting space, or an airline VIP lounge like those seen in airports across the country.

The terminal remodel has made way for a more robust advertising program, said Martha Bratton, the authority’s advertising sales manager. Companies now have more locations for their ads in the airport, as well as the choice between static ads on walls or revolving ads on screens.

The authority’s new advertising goal is to reach $1.2 million in revenue in the first year. About $300,000 has been sold since October.

“The only way we’re going to keep up with it is to anticipate and try to make the best plans we can,” Hundley said of what he called “unparalleled growth” at the airport. “We ought not to rest on our laurels. ... We are going to move forward.”

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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