Living the Dream(liner)

CHARLESTON, SC — As someone who has been employed at the Charleston International Airport since 1987, Susan M. Stevens, A.A.E. readily recognizes that her airport is in the midst of living a dream from an airport director’s point of view.

Actually it’s two dreams — Charleston will soon be the home of the second Boeing assembly plant for the new 787 Dreamliner; and, in March Southwest Airlines connected the city to its U.S. network with seven daily flights to four of its focus cities. The latter move is prompting the Charleston County Airport Authority to accelerate terminal renovation plans as the airport braces for an anticipated influx of passengers.

When asked her greatest fear amid all this activity, Stevens responds, “It’s about keeping up with the growth in Charleston. Our economy is very strong and vibrant in many areas. With the impact of Boeing, Southwest, and Carnival Cruise Lines, we’ve got a lot going on. The port is growing. I want to ensure the airport can accommodate that growth.”

A community goes global

Boeing is rapidly constructing its 240-acre site at Charleston International and expects to be delivering Dreamliners by 2012 from here. Initial investment is estimated in the $85 million range, while various state and local incentive packages will offset much of that investment, say sources. Rent charged to Boeing for the acreage is one dollar per year.

The economic impact is obvious. But there is a greater impact with a project of this scope, one not lost on Stevens. “This will be one of three places in the world where they do final assembly for wide-bodies — Everett, WA; Toulouse, France; and soon to be Charleston, SC. That’s a pretty big deal in anybody’s book, and we’re very excited about it.”

Comments a Boeing spokesperson, “This is a historic move for Boeing and for the aerospace industry in general. This will be the first time in history that Boeing has delivered a wide-body commercial airplane outside of the Puget Sound area. The new South Carolina facility will be one of only three of its kind in the world producing commercial wide-body aircraft. Customers from around the world will come to South Carolina to take delivery of their new 787s, many of whom have never visited the state.

“When we were making the decision to establish an additional 787 final assembly and delivery facility, we looked at all elements including the business environment, logistics, and infrastructure that exist in both Washington State and South Carolina.

“After taking all elements into consideration and carefully weighing them, it was clear to us that the most attractive business decision was to place growth capacity for the 787 in North Charleston.”

Stevens points out that one of the exciting features of the new Boeing complex is it will have its own delivery center here. “The delivery center itself is kind of a mini-airport,” she explains. “They’ll actually have boarding bridges and hold rooms just like in an airport; there will be offices there, too. It’s like a mini-terminal, to be able to host the dignitaries who show up to accept delivery of their airplanes.

“Apparently, they’ll be coming from all over the world. The airplanes will already be painted with the country’s or airline’s scheme. From what I’m told, it’s quite an event.

“If you look at Boeing’s website you will see their suppliers from all over the world. It’s not just their customers but the suppliers as well.”

Stevens says that besides the obvious on-airport impact of Boeing, the manufacturer is having an impact throughout the community. Case in point: Boeing has teamed up with the third largest college in South Carolina, Trident Technical, to train future employees on the science of composites, which are a large part of the Dreamliner’s construction, as well as hands-on training. At the end of the day, she says, it means jobs for local workers.

Comments Stevens, “I think what I’d like to point out is the degree of professionalism I’ve encountered with everyone I’ve worked with at Boeing. It’s been reassuring. It’s nice to see a company that not only talks about quality but is able to deliver.

“They have done a phenomenal job is a very short amount of time. I do not doubt that they can do what they say they can do. I’ve seen firsthand that they can deliver on what they say.”

Joint-use facility

Charleston International Airport is actually a tenant of the U.S. Air Force, which recently completed the reconstruction of the secondary runway (3/21) and will rebuild the primary runway (15/33) in 2012.

Explains Stevens, “The Air Force does all the infrastructure. It’s a mutually beneficial deal between the aviation authority and the Air Force. For example, the Air Force provides all the crash/fire/rescue for both civilian and military. On the other hand, we have an FAA control tower because the civilian airport is here. If it weren’t for that, the Air Force would have to have their own tower and staff it.

“We work together very well.”

The authority pays the Air Force via a formula based on 20 cents per thousand gross takeoff weight, according to Stevens. “We collect 20 cents per thousand from the airlines; we keep half of that to support our general aviation airports and we give the other half to the Air Force,” she says.

“The general aviation airports are important because they help to keep the smaller GA traffic away from this airport. There is no civilian flight training allowed here by the terms of the joint-use agreement.” The two GA airports in the Charleston system include Charleston Executive Airport on John’s Island and Mount Pleasant Regional Airport.

Having spent some 24 years employed at a joint civilian/military facility, Stevens relates that the variations in flight activity alone can make managing here a unique experience. Add to that, she says, the experience of working with Boeing as it undergoes the certification process that goes with creating a new airliner.

“It’s been exciting to watch,” she says. “Running an airport is different when you’re dealing with airworthy, certificated aircraft, compared to working with a brand new airplane. There are just lots of different considerations. For example, fueling is very different — there are all kinds of procedures and confined space rescue issues that have to be dealt with by the first responders.

“There are different instrument landing systems that we’ve worked with Boeing on — state of the art things you don’t normally deal with at an airport of this size.”

Here come the passengers

Meanwhile, on the air service development front, Charleston once again has a low-cost carrier entering the local market. In the past it’s been served by Independence Air and AirTran, among others, with the latter pulling out in 2009. The Southwest Effect, however, is expected to be different.

Says Stevens, “Each time we’ve had a low-cost carrier, we’ve seen a significant increase in traffic.

“Southwest is bringing even more to the table than previous carriers did — in a positive way. AirTran had provided good service to Atlanta. The Southwest network is much larger. We’re getting more opportunity to plug into an even larger network.”

Lease terms with Southwest mirror agreements with other carriers at Charleston. Explains Stevens, “Actually we don’t have a lease, we have an ordinance. We issue a month-to-month agreement. We did that several years ago when the properties departments were not available at the mainline carriers. It was really difficult for an airport our size to get the properties folks to the table, so when it came time in 2000 for renewal we went to an ordinance. It’s the same deal; a residual agreement, with all of the same terms and conditions. It’s just an ordinance instead of a contract.

“We have been through several bankruptcies and really didn’t see a whole lot of benefit to the leases that we did have in place.”

The expected surge in passenger growth has caused the authority to move up plans to renovate its 25-year old terminal — what Stevens terms the “modernization” of the facility. Issues including housing TSA, baggage screening, and pre/post-security concessions all need to be addressed in the terminal upgrade.

Explains Stevens, “We were already looking at that going forward just for the natural growth of our market. Carnival Cruise Lines now operates 70 cruises a year out of Charleston. And there’s been lots of other positive economic development going on in the Low Country.”

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