Airport getting a tuneup; Facility grappling with upsurge in planes, passengers

Swamped with more passengers and planes than ever before, Charleston International Airport officials are pushing the throttles up on a plan to relieve congestion and record delays.

With improvements proposed from the entrance road to the runway, the renovation is one of the most aggressive to date at the 22-year-old terminal.

In the next six to 12 months, crews will: repave International Boulevard, hang rain canopies over three walkways leading from the parking garage to the main passenger terminal, design two additional parking lots with almost 1,500 spaces and move all of the baggage-screening machines out of the ticketing area.

The airport also will update its flight information displays and add a fourth security screening line.

Last week, the Charleston County Aviation Authority, which runs the airport, agreed to spend $8.3 million to bankroll the road work, the rain canopies and designs for other, long-term expansions.

"There's so many people coming to the terminal now ... it's a mess," said attorney David Jennings, who is chairman of the aviation authority. "It's time to do something."

In part because of new service from AirTran Airways, the passenger terminal is on pace to welcome a record 2.14 million travelers this year, 14 percent more than in 2006 and 59 percent more than in 1986, the first full year that the relocated North Charleston airport was open.

And the number of commercial takeoffs and landings rocketed up by two-thirds in the first seven months of the year.

In June and July, the first two full months that AirTran flew to Charleston, the passenger count at local gates shot up by a third over last year. And the 124 AirTran jets that hurtled out of the airport in July were 89 percent full, carrying almost 13,000 travelers in all.

Warren Watts, a retired Charleston resident, was one of many who snapped up some of the new, cheaper fares. He flew AirTran to visit family in Denver for about $400. Watts said the trip was noticeably different from many of the others he has taken in the three decades that he has flown in and out of Charleston.

"There wasn't an empty seat on any of the flights," he said. "And you ought to allow yourself the better part of an hour and 45 minutes to get through security."

Delays have surged in step with passenger volume, rising to record highs. One out of every four domestic flights in the first half of the year arrived late, and 27 percent of the planes bound for Charleston in that time were behind schedule by at least 15 minutes, according to the latest federal statistics.

"The renovations are all in an effort to make the public more comfortable, because aviation is getting difficult," said Pat Waters, an aviation authority board member. "We can't make the planes fly on time, but we can sure get you to the gate on time."

The authority is also teaming up with the Air Force and economic development officials in a push to extend one of the two runways at Charleston International to 10,000 feet, Jennings said. The project would cost between $30 million and $40 million, but could help land another big manufacturer, like the two suppliers that are building pieces of the Boeing Co.'s 787 on airport property.

To help drum up support and financing for the project in the Pentagon, the aviation authority and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce have hired Col. Glen Joerger, who retired in June as commander of the 437th Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base. The two groups have each agreed to pay Joerger $1,500 a month for six months.

Jennings said a 10,000-foot landing strip is high on the checklist for aerospace manufacturers.

Sue Stevens, director of Charleston County's three airports, declined to answer questions this week.

Reach Kyle Stock at 937-5763