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"Columbia, N. Carolina airport thrives under savvy new leader"



Sunday, December 17, 2000

Columbia airport thrives under savvy new leader
By TED REED
The Columbia (NC) Observer


COLUMBIA -- When Mike Flack was hired to run the Columbia Metropolitan
Airport in 1998, he arrived to find a newly renovated facility with an
overriding flaw: too few flights.

The airport had just 24 daily departures to five cities. And despite a
$48million face-lift, it was referred to in a 1997 Wall Street Journal
article as "the best airport to take a nap."

No one is sleeping there now.

Two years after Flack's arrival, the Columbia airport has seen impressive
expansion. It now boasts 54 daily departures and 11 nonstop destinations. It
will add a 12th destination, Boston Logan International, on Jan. 5.

Partly through skill and partly through fortuitous timing, Flack has
breathed new life into South Carolina's fourth-largest airport.

"I got here at the right time," he says. "There was a job to be done and a
market to fill."

Luck helped as well. Flack arrived just as many airlines were beginning to
take delivery of hundreds of regional jets - smaller planes that typically
seat 50 to 90 people instead of the 110 to 400 carried on larger jets.

Because the smaller planes require fewer passengers to turn a profit, the
airlines put them mainly at smaller airports, such as Columbia.

Since 1998, air traffic at the Columbia facility has grown about 10percent,
this year approaching 1.2 million passengers - a record level.

Other S.C. airports have benefited as well from regional jets. At Charleston
International, traffic has increased 7 percent and the airport has added a
half-dozen nonstop destinations over the past two years.

Traffic at Greenville/Spartanburg International has grown about 12percent,
with nine daily flights to New York's La Guardia Airport. And, thanks
largely to increased service by low-fare carriers such as Sprint and
AirTran, traffic at Myrtle Beach International has grown nearly 30 percent.

In Columbia, meanwhile, Flack is battling his S.C. rivals to attract
Southwest Airlines, the nation's leading low-fare carrier. Southwest has
been adding cities for decades, recently focusing on the Southeast. It added
service to Raleigh/Durham last year.

Industry analysts say South Carolina is a good candidate to attract
Southwest, but some give Greenville/Spartanburg an edge over Columbia
because of its thriving business climate and its proximity to major highways
linking Atlanta and Charlotte.

Flack, however, likes his chances.

"If you look at the way Southwest works, they don't come to a city," he
says. "They come to a region, and they want the airport that will give them
the largest area from which they can reasonably attract people who will
drive one to two hours."

Columbia Metropolitan would draw not only from Charlotte and the Atlanta
area, he says, but also from Charleston and Savannah.

In courting Southwest, Flack has visited the company's officials in Dallas
three times and he contacts them by phone, mail or e-mail at least once a
month.

Flack, hired away from Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., is nothing if
not tenacious.

When he arrived in Columbia, one of his first decisions was to conduct a
marketing survey. He asked local travel agents, businesses and passengers
how often they drove to Charlotte/Douglas instead of using the Columbia
facility.

The survey showed the Columbia airport was losing about 17 percent of its
market to Charlotte.

The survey also asked how much of a savings it took to attract those
passengers to Charlotte, some 90 miles away. The typical response: about
$100.

Armed with that information, Flack traveled to Atlanta to visit officials at
Delta Air Lines, which has about 50 percent of the Columbia market. "I told
them, `Get within $100 of Charlotte, and you'll get more passengers here,'"
he recalls.

Delta agreed, and lowered some of its one-stop fares from Columbia through
its hubs in Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Because of such efforts, Flack says, the loss of passengers to Charlotte has
declined to between 10 and 15 percent. "We feel we've recaptured some of it,
but certainly not all of it," he says.

The marketing survey also told Flack where Columbia passengers wanted to
fly, and he used that information to persuade carriers to add routes.

Now, when an airline adds a city, the airport mounts an advertising campaign
to publicize the route.

Airport commissioners who recruited Flack say they were looking for just
such a person - someone with strong marketing skills - when they were
scouting to replace longtime airport director Bob Waddle, who oversaw the
renovation.

Flack says he forged his marketing tactics while directing the Lexington
airport, which sits in the shadow of larger airports in Cincinnati and
Louisville, Ky. The Cincinnati airport is a major hub, and Louisville offers
Southwest service.

"We had people driving to Cincinnati and Louisville in droves," Flack sad,
but Blue Grass Airport still thrived.

Flack concedes that the spread of regional jets has made his job easier, but
he also credits his own efforts.

"I take credit for bringing a marketing program to take full advantage of
the situation," he says. "I was hired because of the success of the
marketing program we had in Lexington. Columbia was underserved, just like
Louisville was 15 years ago."

If Flack succeeds in attracting Southwest, the Columbia airport would expect
to see rapid growth, just as the Raleigh/Durham airport did when Southwest
arrived there. But Greenville/Spartanburg Aviation Director Gary Jackson is
eyeing Southwest, too.

"Everybody wants them," Jackson says. "We send them stuff all the time,
trying to keep the lines of communication open. We get good feelings, but
they always tell us to manage our expectations, just like they tell
everybody else."

If Southwest doesn't pick Columbia, Flack says, the airport can still
prosper.

He would seek more competitive fares from existing airlines and court other
low-fare carriers, such as JetBlue, which operates a hub at New York's
Kennedy International Airport.

Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo., says that while
Flack's marketing techniques are not unique, he deserves a measure of credit
for growth that occurred under his watch.

"Growth in airport service does not happen by osmosis," Boyd says. "There
are dozens of airports the size of Columbia that do not have that kind of
increase in service. Limited resources mean that airlines have to make
decisions on where to put them, and those commitments show successful
marketing."

Meanwhile, Flack is working to upgrade the airport. One handicap is the
approach from Interstate 26, a half-mile stretch on a sometimes-congested
commercial road.

Work will begin this summer on several roadway improvements, but completion
is at least five years away.

This spring, the airport will start building a $25 million, 2,000-space
parking garage, which will double airport parking capacity. Flack says the
new garage is necessary with or without Southwest, because some passengers
must walk as far as a quarter-mile to reach the terminal.

The airport has no shuttle service.

Flack also has his eye on the proposed United/US Airways merger. He says
United's frequently expressed desire to build Charlotte into a strong
competitor to Atlanta could work to Columbia's advantage.

"If it happens, I would go to United and I would say, `I understand you are
trying to beef up Charlotte,'" he says. "I would say, `I want to help you
compete, and I can get a lot more people to fly out of Columbia on United.
Just give me some fares.'"

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