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Airline industry financial boost impacts Columbia Regional Airport’s search for new flights

Airlines across the country have seen record financial success this year and experts say low fuel prices are the reason for the financial boost.

Airport Manager Don Elliott said that impacts the airport’s efforts to bring in new flights and routes.

“What they are investing in at this point are larger aircrafts,” he said. “Not necessarily expanding big routes and major routes but larger aircraft and getting passenger loads above 80 percent.”

Elliott said there’s also a pilot shortage after a 2013 law made it mandatory for entry level pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time, instead of the previous minimum of 250 hours.

So airport officials are redirecting their focus to match the airlines’ focus of beefing up equipment and getting more passengers flying.

The number of passengers buying tickets for Columbia flights have skyrocketed in recent years, according to Elliott, so it fits right in with the airport’s terminal expansion plans.

“We’re just scratching the surface of the catchment area,” he said. “We can grow our current market which would have to have either larger aircraft or more people in the terminal at one time.”

The terminal is set to expand in the next couple of years anyway. The Columbia City Council heard a proposal Monday night for a preferred plan for the terminal.

Currently the consultants are putting together a cost estimate for that plan and it should be available in early July.

But Elliott said that doesn’t mean they stop looking into adding more flights. He said they’re always trying to remain on the radar for certain airlines.

The Airport Advisory Board also decided to put out an official survey for passengers as well, so that it could get their opinion on the new terminal as well as looking at where they would like to see flights in the future.

“Are the destinations pretty typical where they want to go?” said the board’s vice chair John Riddick. “Not just Chicago or Dallas but can they get to their final destination if that’s not it?”

The board also discussed the lodging tax increase the city has proposed to pay for the terminal. The city has asked for the board’s recommendation but they voted to wait on a decision until they have more information on the tax.

One board member said he didn’t even think some hoteliers had all the information either.

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