Back in 2009, Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport was in dire need of a shot in the arm.
Travel out of the airport had nose-dived, bottoming out a few passengers shy of 637,000 and down from more than 900,000 just four years earlier. Airlines had cut routes or left the market altogether. Ticket prices had skyrocketed, putting GSP in the top five for highest average airfare among the top 100 airports in the country.
Then Southwest Airlines announced in 2010 that it was coming into the market. The Dallas-based low-cost carrier launched its first service from GSP on March 13, 2011. The airport’s passenger count increased by 42 percent in Southwest’s first year.
“It absolutely was a game-changer,” said Dave Edwards, the airport’s president and CEO.
Fast forward to today.
GSP is coming off a record year in 2018, when 2.3 million passengers flew into or out of the airport, and passenger traffic in January grew by nearly 17 percent compared with the year before. That’s the 16th consecutive month of passenger growth and the largest since Southwest started service. Edwards said he expects the growth to continue, in part because the airlines have increased their seat capacities for February through the beginning of July by 20 percent.
“The biggest thing that keeps me up at night is how are we going to accommodate the growth that I think is going to occur in the next six months,” Edwards said. “The biggest challenge we face right now is maintaining a high level of service and providing facilities during a time when we’re seeing growth the likes of which we haven’t seen to date. This airport has always seen steady growth, but not the kind of growth we’ve seen in the last 10 years.”
Passenger traffic has grown so fast it is straining the airport’s parking facilities — there have been times since Frontier Airline’s entry into the market last fall when just 50 of the airport’s available spots were open.
“We’re outpacing the growth that we projected just a year ago when we were compiling our new master plan,” he said.
To address the shortage, the airport’s board approved $17 million for new economy and employee surface parking lots. When those are available in summer 2020, GSP will begin constructing a 1,500-space parking garage. Half of the spaces will be for public parking and the rest for rental car companies.
The terminal, last expanded in GSP’s Wingspan project that was completed in 2017, has enough capacity to handle 4 million passengers a year, Edwards said. Whether the airport will have to add gates or additional baggage claims in the next three to five years likely will be determined by a terminal planning study, Edwards said.
During peak periods of the day, like early weekday mornings popular with business travelers who want to get to their destinations to conduct business, GSP is starting to have gate constraint, Edwards said. The airport currently has 13 gates but the terminal can accommodate 18, he said.
“Right now, we’re able to jockey a few things around to make it work, but it’s going to become impossible if we add a few more cities into that morning push,” said Edwards, who said the airport’s new master plan calls for $250 million in construction over the next decade.
All of GSP’s growth is not tied to passenger traffic, however.
Cargo traffic is increasing as well, with 1,100 flights and nearly 60,000 tons coming through GSP in 2018. A new cargo terminal should be complete this summer, he said.
GSP took over the fixed-base operation and commercial fueling at the airport. FBO is a commercial business granted the right by the airport to provide aeronautical services, such as fueling, maintenance, rental, storage and flight instruction.
In addition, land development plays an important part in the airport’s growth, Edwards said.
GSP sold some land to the Port of Charleston to build the Inland Port Greer. Nearby, the GSP International Airport Logistics Park is underway. “We’re on track, by sometime in 2020, to have two and a half million square feet of logistics warehousing in the park, effectively building it out,” Edwards said.
Planning is underway for an aerospace manufacturing park on the west side of the airport at S.C. 14 and Verne Smith Parkway, he said. In addition, GSP is talking to developers about 300 acres between Brockman McClimon Road and the entrance into the airport for commercial development, including a possible hotel, he said.
“Nothing has been solidified yet, but there continues to be a lot of interest in that particular property,” Edwards said.
The development is important for GSP’s future, he said.
“The fact that we’re growing our three other business lines means that we’re in better position to offer lower costs to the airlines, which translates to them potentially growing new markets. It makes us more competitive, and it allows us to keep our parking rates lower,” he said.
Edwards said the airport’s annual economic impact to the Upstate is $2.9 billion. He said GSP’s growth reflects the Upstate’s growth.
“GSP is not the economic engine, but without us, the economic engine doesn’t run as well,” he said. “We’re here to support the growth. We’re making sure we’re providing the facilities that allow growth, both in cargo and in passengers, and on the land development side where the opportunities are right, to help recruit new business and well-paying jobs to the Upstate. The future looks bright.”
Oh, the places we go (nonstop)
Five nonstop destinations — Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami —were added in 2018, giving GSP direct flights to 12 of its top 15 domestic destinations. The three without nonstop service are Boston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, all business destinations.
GSP President and CEO Dave Edwards said there’s a “high likelihood of success” in adding nonstop service to Boston in the next year.
Nonstop service to Los Angeles is challenging because regional jets can’t be used, he said. But as use of C-series Bombardier aircraft with fewer seats and the range to fly coast-to-coast increases, so does the likelihood of nonstop West Coast service, he said.
Internationally, Edwards said GSP wants to add nonstop service to Cancun, Mexico, a leading vacation destination, one or two days a week.
In addition, the airport is discussing adding service to Toronto with two airlines, Air Canada and Porter, Edwards said. Another possibility for less-than-daily direct service is Germany, he said.