Already on shaky ground before the economy went sour, the airline industry has suffered along with everybody else as businesses and consumers reduced major expenses like air travel.
Major hubs have cut flights and services, but it is the smaller, regional airports that depend on spillover from its behemoth brethren for business that are really taking it on the chin.
Remaining unmarked, though, is the face of air travel in the Golden Triangle.
At a ceremony attended by a couple hundred economic developers and airline officials last week, the top brass of Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTRA) announced they were not cutting flights. They were adding one crucial route.
Beginning May 4, Delta Airlines will offer through one of its smaller carriers a direct flight to Memphis. Flights from Columbus to Memphis will leave twice daily and will provide travelers with access to more than 80 domestic and four international destinations.
The move, said Delta spokesman Michael Doil, will make westward and international travel more readily available from the Golden Triangle.
With the new connection, instead of flying one hour east to Atlanta for a Western destination, travelers will fly from Columbus northwest to Memphis.
“It comes at a time when airports like this aren’t necessarily growing; in some cases, they’re shrinking,” said GTRA’s executive director Michael Hainsey.
The reason for the expansion comes into view almost immediately after taking the Airport Road exit off Hwy. 82 in Columbus. The stretch of road leading to the airport’s entrance is dotted with $3 billion in new industries that have located to Columbus the past five years. Eurocopter, PACCAR, Severstal North America and Aurora Flight Sciences are all within sight of the control tower.
The airport has grown with the adjacent industrial park. Twelve million dollars have been spent on infrastructure improvement since 2003. That includes strengthening the runway, adding two ramps and the construction of a $1.6 million control tower. There are plans to spend an additional $10 million to extend the runway by 1,500 feet. A grant application is in the works for an instrument landing system to make the airport more compatible with the missions flown out of Columbus Air Force Base. To accommodate future expansion, the airport has purchased 200 acres of surrounding land.
The most noticeable improvement to the airport will be the expansion of the terminal, whose capacity will rise from 58 to 180 people upon completion.
“We’re working to keep up with the growth,” Hainsey said.
The type of growth perhaps has more to do with the expansion of GTRA than anything. The industries next to the airport are all multinational corporations, with headquarters in Germany, Russia, Israel and France.
“It’s a diverse group,” said Robin Mcormick, executive director of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport Authority.
Delta Executive Doil said the strong demand for convenient intertnational travel through the hubs in Memphis and Atlanta as “definitely helped the cause” for Delta’s adding the direct flight to Memphis.
“This area is a growth opportunity. We feel like we can stimulate the market,” Doil said. “International traffic is a very big component. It’s really driven by the economic development team here in the region, quite honestly.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .