The Columbia Metropolitan Airport has always been a big deal. In its heyday, couples would stop by Zestos in West Columbia, grab a couple of milkshakes, drive over to the observation area to the right of the airport, cuddle up and watch in awe as jet airplanes rocketed skyward with thunderous noise and white streaming contrails into a cloudless, starlit night. People whose forbearers from just a generation ago rarely left the confines of their communities except to serve their country in the military now had a realistic hope of visiting Europe or the Far East, and that hope lay in the 2,600 acres in Lexington County that served as the portal to the wild blue yonder.
Fortunately, points of access work both ways, and in short order, Columbia Metropolitan Airport became not only a place to begin adventures away, but also a gateway to the Midlands. Incoming flights brought visitors and freight from faraway places. People who had barely heard of the Midlands deplaned to discover the land of three rivers, the Congaree National Swamp, Cook’s Mountain, mustard-based barbeque and the Riverbanks Zoo. The gateway distinction is one the airport still holds and continues to hone year after year.
Lexington County officials had the airfield built in 1940 and christened it as the Lexington County Airport. Prior to that, air travelers came to the area via the Columbia Owens Downtown Airport. The new airfield was designed to handle larger aircraft. Just as its operations got underway, World War II began, and the new airport became a military airfield and home to the 105th Observation Squadron. Dubbed the Columbia Army Airfield, the location also became home to B-25 Mitchell bombers and later to the 7th Bombardment Group, the famous Doolittle Raiders.
After the war, the Army returned the base to civilian control. “In 1947, commercial airline operations moved from Owens Field to this location. At that time, Delta and Eastern Airlines were the two carriers serving Columbia. Airport and airline operations were set up in a hangar facility. A new terminal building was built in the early 1950s and the airport was later named the Columbia Metropolitan Airport,” says Lynne Douglas, air service development and customer service manager for the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
In May 1965, airport officials built a new “state of the art” terminal. The building was functional and reflected the prevailing architectural style of the 1960s. It had high ceilings, copious seating (even seating with small mini televisions attached), and plenty of space to gather, for this was the time before 9/11 when flying was still somewhat of a rarity for the average South Carolinian and going to the airport was a family affair. Spouses could walk together to the gate and say their goodbyes in the departure lounge and moms, dads, sisters, brothers — aunts, uncles and cousins all — could stand at the arrival gate to welcome home a loved one returning from military duty or a couple coming home after a honeymoon.
At the “old” airport people could park next to the terminal, stand in the wide expanse of the hallway just across from banks of sit-down payphone booths, or go outside onto the observation deck just next to the tarmac to wave a goodbye or a welcome to air travelers.
More than anything else, the old terminal building was brown — floor to ceiling. But that all changed in the mid-90s.
“From 1995 until 1997, that terminal facility underwent a major renovation, transforming it into the facility we now enjoy,” Lynne says. That facility is a jewel, quite literally. From the air, the terminal looks like a giant sapphire encrusted in a gleaming ivory setting.
Walking off the jet way, Midland’s visitors are greeted by that same ultra-bright white, clean architectural lines, cathedral like spaces and custom designed carpet with Palmetto trees embroidered within. And while a traveler may have flown in on a jet with the latest aerospace technology, over-sized planters with palmetto trees and a phalanx of white rocking chairs say, “Welcome to the South” in the terminal’s main lobby.
Since beauty is only skin deep, Dan Mann, executive director of the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, and his staff, as well as his predecessors in that post, have done more than their share in making the airport not only a gateway to the Midlands, but also a driving economic engine in the region. “Airport operations provide more than 1,500 direct and indirect jobs that contribute over $421 million dollars to the local economy. More than 50 businesses are connected with the airport. The $16 million operating budget of the airport is provided through passenger fees and other charges, none of which come from local taxes,” Dan says.
Besides people one would normally associate with airport operations — baggage handlers, TSA personnel and gate agents — the airport contracts with food and gift shop vendors, rental car agencies and taxi services. Earlier in 2012, the airport placed a renewed emphasis on relationships with minority and women-owned businesses.
“When I was recruited by the Airport Commission in 2010,” Dan says, “it was expressed to me how important our efforts are in working closely with DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) businesses and providing opportunities for them to do business with the airport. Our DBE participation was 10 percent of our eligible income and has now increased to 28 percent.”
In September of this year, the airport was honored at the Eighth Annual Excellence in Workplace Diversity Awards Ceremony with the Excellence in Workplace Diversity Award for Small Employers. “This award would not have been possible without the leadership and vision of the Airport Commission as well as the commitment of our staff in believing in and embracing our diversity initiatives and taking the actions necessary to accomplish those goals,” says Dan.
In addition to transporting people, Columbia Metropolitan Airport is also a freight hub for the region. That, in itself, is a major economic contribution. “We are fortunate to have cargo operations by two of the major players in the industry, UPS and FedEx,” says Lynne. “Cargo is another large piece of our daily operation and helps greatly in recruitment efforts by our economic development groups.”
UPS established its southeastern regional hub at the airport in August 1996. Originally slated to employ 140 people to load, unload and sort packages from six cargo flights per day and estimated to process about 80,000 packages per day, UPS now employs 220 people, sees 10 flights per day arrive and depart with freight, and its equipment can process 41,000 packages per hour.
Many areas leaders and economic developers believe having a UPS hub was instrumental in getting Amazon to the area, which, Lynne points out, translates into additional jobs. UPS Airlines public relations manager Mike Mangeot says simply, “It’s common for our customers to locate distribution centers near our hubs so they can minimize time in transit for their customers. This arrangement is good for everyone: our customers are directly tied to us, which we like; they improve service for their customers, which they like; and it’s typically good for economic development in the region as a job creator. As a regional hub, Columbia remains an important entry point into UPS’s global logistics network. Our CAE operation allows customers in the Southeast to reach the world in a matter of hours.”
In January 1983, the airport was designated a U.S. Customs Port of Entry. In 1986, it was granted foreign-trade zone status. The FTZ program encourages U.S. based operations by removing certain disincentives associated with manufacturing in the United States. The duty on a product manufactured abroad and imported is paid at the rate of the finished product rather than that of the individual parts, materials or components of the product. A U.S.-based company finds itself at a disadvantage when it must pay the higher rate on parts, materials or components imported for use in the manufacturing process. The FTZ program corrects this imbalance by treating a product made in a U.S. foreign-trade zone, for purposes of tariff assessment, as if it were produced abroad.
FTZs extend specific business benefits to communities like the Midlands. When companies increase their cash flow, save taxes and improve their bottom lines by locating operations in FTZs, economic growth and development are stimulated because jobs are retained and created in the community. The FTZ program impacts indirect employment, as well, because a business location not only creates jobs, but also creates opportunities for suppliers and service providers in the community. An FTZ project can be a valuable asset when a community is trying to attract new business investment to its area. A community with a FTZ may experience an improved infrastructure and expanded tax-base as a result of higher employment and the influx of new businesses.
What about flying as a personal business decision? A quick check of travel websites often shows cheaper flights leaving from Charlotte or Atlanta. It’s important to remember that Columbia Metropolitan Airport does not set airfares. The airlines do that. The flying public can influence the price of flights by frequenting the local airport. “It’s important that our travelers understand the importance of supporting their hometown airport by flying CAE as much as possible as that translates into helping us build business cases to the airlines for larger aircraft, new and additional service which translates into competitive airfares. We are very fortunate to have very good air service by the four legacy carriers, American, Delta, United and US Airways, with nonstop service to 11 major destinations and connections beyond. Delta Air Lines has been very pro-active in working with us regarding pricing and has changed their pricing strategy in Columbia to be more competitive with our neighboring airports,” Lynne says.
Otherwise, air travel decisions come down to personal preference. “We like to remind travelers to, first of all, always check CAE first and don’t assume we’re going to be more expensive because that is certainly not always the case. We are often less expensive or at least very comparable. And, everyone has a different price difference threshold whether it’s $50 or a $150. If it is a case where CAE is coming in with a higher airfare, we ask folks to compare the cost of driving and other issues related to travelling to another airport and to compare the ease and convenience of flying out of CAE,” Lynne says.
Dan and his staff are rightfully proud of their jewel. “We regularly receive comments from travelers about how beautiful and clean the terminal is,” he says. ‘”First time visitors often tell us how surprised they are to see such an impressive facility for a small airport, and it’s not what they expected. And we receive comments very often about how much folks enjoy the rocking chairs, so they will always be a part of our landscape. The renovation was before my time here but from everything I’ve been told, it completely transformed the look and operation of the former terminal. Some of the new features included moving sidewalks in the connector leading to the departure gates; new food and gift concession areas; the signature pyramid skylights, quite honestly an entirely new look. And, some of our additional amenities that have been added in recent years include the opening of a parking garage in 2003; valet parking; free Wi-Fi throughout the terminal; a cell phone parking lot; and the opening of the USO.”
The airport has a 20-year plan mandated by the FAA. It addresses long-range goals for facilities and the like. In the short term, Dan has put together a five year plan, which encompasses these key focuses: the facility; transition to a Public Safety Department and cross training; customer service; community outreach; fiscal soundness with a set goal to be debt free by 2025; and the staff. “Our people who are on the front lines doing the heavy lifting and serving as the face of our organization are the biggest differentiators we have, and we could not be more proud of them. We want our staff to know they are valued members of a team that appreciates and respects them,” Dan says.
Respect and appreciation are words people at CAE live by. And it is rarely more evident than when the facility plays host to a military honor flight for World War II veterans. “We work very closely with the local Honor Flight team to make sure that the airport experience for our veterans and their families is seamless and a special part of their memories for that very special day. It’s truly a great team effort among the CAE staff, the airlines and so many others. There’s always an impressive welcome home in the main lobby full of family, friends and other well-wishers, along with a host of special local groups that always come out in support as well such as the Patriot Guard Riders, Fort Jackson’s 282nd Army Band, the Irmo JROTC, the scouts, representatives with the Miss Columbia/Capital City Pageants, the Marine Corps League, and the list goes on. It truly is a great event for our community.” For those veteran and their families, CAE is more than a gateway to the Midlands. It’s a gateway home.