Port Columbus Plans Expansion Even As Fewer Passengers Board Planes.

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Port Columbus officials are planning for expansion even as passenger counts are declining. The Airport Authority says it wants to build a new south runway at a cost of 176-million dollars. WOSU’s Tom Borgerding reports preliminary work has already begun and the airport is seeking Federal Aviation Authority approval and a big chunk of federal grant money to get started.

During late afternoon, Port Columbus is bustling. Travelers stride purposefully to and from plane gates. Last year, nearly 7,000,000 travelers made connections here. On Thursday afternoon, 27 flights departed Port Columbus between 4 and 5 p.m. But the number of airline passengers using Port Columbus in the past year has declined and airport officials predict a further drop-off in 2009 as some families cancel vacations and businesses pinch travel budgets. But, even while passenger traffic declines, Port Columbus has begun preliminary work on a south runway project. Dave Whitaker, Vice President of Business and Development says its the largest capital expenditure at Port Columbus on record.

“So it would be the most expensive thing we ever did here at Port Columbus. But relative to other runway projects in the United States, it is a bargain. And I know that sounds odd to say that 176 million dollars is relatively inexpensive. But, a lot of new runways out there approach 1-billion dollars.”

Whitaker says at least half of the funding would come from federal Aviation Administration grants….including some monies from the recently passed federal stimulus package.

“Only for the design element have we requested grant funding and that is about $12,000,000 of the $176,000,000 total cost.”

Whitaker says the balance of the runway cost would be paid by passengers. Currently at Port Columbus passengers pay a so-called facility fee of $4.50 per ticket. But that could go as high as $7.00 per ticket pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and the eleven airlines that serve Port Columbus. Aviation industry consultant Andrew Vasey has been advising airlines and airports for 23 years and was a consultant to Skybus last year before the Columbus-based airline ceased operation. He says its not the best time to raise passenger rates.

“The F-A-A is going to release its forecast at the end of March. Right now they’re predicting it seems that traffic is going to decrease another five percent off the decrease that hit last November. So from a timing point of view its probably may not be the best timing to raise airline rates because you have fewer passengers to spread the cost over. So, the cost go up one, because of the capital and two because there are fewer people to spread the cost over.” Says Vasey.

Development of the south runway at Port Columbus is part of a larger master plan that calls for a second terminal building. But, spokeswoman Angie Tabor says the current terminal has room to handle several million more passengers per year.

“Our current building was built in the mid 1950′s and can handle up to ten or eleven million passengers annually. Right now we’re about six or seven million passengers.” Says Tabor.

Tabor, Whitaker and other airport officials say its still prudent to go forward with the runway project so capital costs can be spread over time. But, Vasey says current slack passenger demand for air travel builds tension between airlines and airport authorities.

“There are conflicting interests on when the development should occur. The airlines tend to like to see the development go slower. The local community likes to see it go faster because major capital projects at airports are good generators of jobs.” Says Vasey.

Port Columbus is situated within driving distance of airports in Dayton, Canton, Pittsuburgh, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. So passengers have plenty of options when booking a flight. Whitaker says the airport authority is looking for future growth within Central Ohio to boost passenger numbers.

“Well I think its going to be inside the market. We have a tremendous number of corporations and so we’re not talking about expanding our draw necessarily from outer regions but rather Columbus growing.”

Whitaker says the plans call for completion of the south runway project by 2012.

Tom Borgerding WOSU News