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Charleston Business

Charleston International Airport is getting a red carpet makeover

Nov 09, 2018 10:06AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Dan McCue

The first phase of the Charleston International Airport parking expansion project officially got underway this fall with the kind of preliminary site work that would do a puzzle-master proud.

"We call them enabling projects," says Britton Corbin, the airport's director of engineering, shortly after the work got underway on what will eventually be a new, 3,000-space parking deck.

"We're constructing some additional surface parking, because once we start building the parking deck, hopefully in January or February, we're going to lose about 1,000 of the existing spaces, and this work will also include expanding the cell phone waiting line," he says.

The work is all part of a master plan aimed at accommodating the airport's projected growth over the next decade. In 2017 alone, the airport welcomed nearly 4 million passengers, and strong year-over-year growth — much of it tied to the economic development success of the tri-county region — is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

"Our growth really began to take off in 2010, and it's been pretty steady, accelerating every year since," Corbin says. "The need to address that is something we recognized a long time ago."

Indeed, the parking garage project is just the latest manifestation of "Vision 2030: From the Roadway to the Runway," the master plan that has been guiding the transformation of the state's busiest airport since 2013.

Two years ago, the Charleston County Aviation Authority celebrated the completion of a four-year, $200 million terminal redevelopment project that changed not only the look of the 1980s-era facility, but also the layout and function of many terminal operations.

The project, which ran into delays in January 2015 after asbestos was discovered in the terminal building and had to be removed, added five gates, a new baggage claim area, nine restaurants, and seven retail shops. 

"Basically, we redid the whole thing because the terminal had been built in 1985 and there had really been no major retrofits since then," Corbin says. "The upgrades reflect both the need to accommodate growth and to modernize the facilities for our visitors."

A big driver in all of this was the arrival of Boeing, which now manufactures 787 passenger jets on a sweeping campus right next to the airport, and manufacturers like Volvo Cars and Mercedes-Benz Vans, all of whom set down roots in the Lowcountry after the planning for improvement had gotten under way.

"Having the major manufacturers here has really brought a lot of passengers through the airport, and that has accelerated the timeline," Corbin says. "We're moving as quickly as we can to get these infrastructure projects designed and built and opened up for use."

Corbin says data collected by the aviation authority suggested the airport's current passenger mix is equally split between business and vacation travelers. One manifestation of this is the five discount Alaska Airlines flights that travel between Charleston and Seattle each week.

"That's the Boeing effect right there," he says. "We have a big contingent that flies from Seattle to Charleston on a very regular basis, and making that work reflects the amenities we're striving to provide to all of our passengers."

The booming economy has also led to a marked increase in those visiting the Charleston area for pleasure. One way the airport is planning to meet the needs of both types of customers is by creating  a shared-use lounge in the airport, which Corbin described as "kind of like a VIP-lounge, open to all carriers."

Long-term plans call for an expansion of the existing terminal to accommodate even more flights, and then construction of a second parking deck.

"When growing your airport, you have to plan for eventualities — like the need for a second parking deck at some point — while also managing your growth, making sure you're growing equally in all areas," Corbin says. "You don't want to invest too much in one area and neglect another.

"So we've invested in our terminal and now we're investing in our parking, and I think the next phase will likely be investing in the terminal again, followed by the second parking deck project," he continued. "In the near-term, after this current parking deck project, we're looking at a ticketing-area and concourse expansion."

Separate but related to all this is Charleston County's planned construction of a $50 million access road to the airport. The project, called the Airport Connector Road, will be the new entrance road to Charleston International Airport. The new four-lane, three-mile long road will run from Montague Avenue at I-526 along an existing powerline easement to Michaux Parkway, and then on to the airport. Once it is complete, along with improvements at the Montague Ave. interchange with I-526, the four-lane section of International Boulevard from South Aviation Avenue to the airport can be closed.

Construction is currently slated to begin on that project in 2021.

"We're kind of on the side of that project," Corbin says. "It will serve the airport, so obviously we're a stakeholder in the outcome, but it is entirely country-funded and it really won't affect us much, if at all, during construction."

He went on to add that the aviation authority plans to have the current parking deck project completed by the fall of 2020, "in time to beat the holiday rush."

Given the airport's past experience with the asbestos abatement, Corbin admitted the unexpected — including the occasional hurricane — can throw such wishful thinking for a loop.

"Fortunately, in terms of the foundation for the parking deck, we built the surface lots awhile back, put a bunch of good dirt in there, and so we don't anticipate any surprises as we begin to do that work," he says. “But then, there is the weather to contend with. We are going to have to get through a hurricane season during construction, so that's something we definitely do have to plan for in the fall of 2019.

"We had a little scare with [Hurricane] Florence this year, where we had to shut down a contractor for a few days, but we were fortunate and it really didn't impact us going forward," he says.