By: Anna Lee
On a clear, cloudless morning, the wind whip-cold, two jets and a turbo-prop took off from the Greenville Downtown Airport, cutting white rents into the air.
A few single-engine pistons quickly followed, bound for Tampa, Columbia and Fayetteville. Then came lunchtime, a two-hour lull and a dozen more flights as night fell and another day ended.
There was a time before the Great Recession when airport director Joe Frasher would have considered this a slow day, back when the cost of fuel was $3 or $4 a gallon and hangars spat out planes as steadily as a heart beat.
“It’s hard for me to quantify where we would have been if we hadn’t gone through this recession,” Frasher said. “It caused a lot of people to quit flying altogether.”
With more than 56,000 flights last year, the Downtown Airport remains the busiest general aviation airport in South Carolina and the third-busiest of the state’s 60 public-use airports behind Myrtle Beach and Charleston International, but it has suffered losses. The airport is at half capacity, and flights have dropped off 25 percent since 2007.
The pattern is found nationwide, part of a downward trend in general aviation activity ranging from the small Cirrus SR22’s to corporate jets and cargo planes, according to a recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that showed operations across the country decreasing by 35 percent since 2000 — the most significant drop happening between 2007 and 2009.
Still, the Downtown Airport is doing better than other general aviation airports as the corporate gateway into Greenville ringed by the city’s four main commercial arteries, Frasher said, though the role of the facility is shifting.
Recreational pilots are grounded by fuel prices hovering at $6 a gallon. The cost of flying has climbed, squeezing business at the airport’s four flight schools so that much of the air traffic now is business-related.
“There’s always going to be a place for general aviation,” Frasher said. “We’re just trying to figure out what the new normal is.”
At least twice a week, Tim McKinney, CEO of McKinney Automotive, takes one of his Beechcrafts to car auctions dotting the East Coast, to Greensboro, Atlanta, Orlando and smaller, more rural towns airlines don’t reach.
The commercial alternative, Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, and being held up by lines and security isn’t an option, not when the car business is trending up like it is.
With general aviation, “you get in, get out and get your business done,” McKinney said.
Business flights like McKinney’s now make up 75 percent to 80 percent of flights out of the Downtown Airport, according to Frasher, and that includes the corporate jets with executives who mostly visit downtown Greenville, ICAR and the Laurens Road area.
Before 2008, when fuel was cheaper, the ratio was less tilted toward business, and about 40 percent of operations came from recreational or private flyers, Frasher said.
“I’m not as optimistic that recreational flying will ever recover to where it once was, but I think business flying makes good business sense, so the cost of fuel does not impact it as bad,” he said.
Frasher and city officials say that having the airport where it is — right off Interstate 385 and five minutes from downtown and Interstate 85 — is vital to the business community, though the facility itself doesn’t lure development the way that tax breaks or infrastructure would. It’s more about efficiency, flexibility and the things that go into running a successful company.
“It’s just great from a business standpoint to have that very quick access to downtown. That means access to business downtown, access to deal-making instead of having to fly in through GSP and drive 30 minutes,” said Tracy Ramseur, a city development coordinator.
About 75 percent of all Fortune 500 companies use general aviation planes, according to the National Business Aircraft Association, and in South Carolina, 40 percent of businesses said their clients travel through regional or local airports to visit their companies, a 2006 state Department of Commerce study reported.
The study, which examined the economic impact of the state’s public-use airports and surveyed 298 businesses, also showed that 22 percent of respondents owned, leased or chartered general aviation planes.
The rise in fractional aircraft ownership — it works like a time share on a beach condo — has “made jet aircraft available to so, so many companies that either could not justify or didn’t want to simply afford 100 percent ownership in a jet,” said Hank Brown, longtime owner of the Greenville Jet Center, which provides aircraft services at the Downtown Airport.
The airport had 12,775 chartered flights last year and 13,692 in 2011, according to Federal Aviation Administration data. They’re the aviation version of a taxi service and more expensive than going commercial, but you get to make your own schedule instead of following the whims of an airline.
Chartered planes are “commonly referred to as time machines,” Brown said. “And time is money.”
With no landing fees or yearly permits, the airport’s main source of revenue comes from land its five-member commission leases, from hangars and flight schools to parking lots and other buildings spread over 385 acres.
The airport commission is working to bring in more tenants through a commercial realtor to market 52 of those acres to aviation-related businesses since many of the parcels have direct access to a runway. Roughly 15 to 20 acres have more flexible uses, but interest so far has been limited because the FAA doesn’t allow airports to sell the land paid for by its Airport Improvement Program, Frasher said.
The Downtown Airport has received more than $3.2 million in federal grants since 2004, mostly to buy real estate and make capital improvements, according to FAA data. The Donaldson Center has received $4.5 million and Greenville-Spartanburg International $41.4 million.
“The problem that we encounter time and time again is that we don’t sell the land,” Frasher said. “We just long-term lease it, and most companies are less willing to invest in a building or spend a lot of money on capital improvements on land that they don’t own.”
Another issue is height restrictions set by the FAA requiring construction within 20,000 feet from the end of a runway to get approval first, but Frasher doesn’t think a building’s height is what’s slowing development.
Rather, the corridors that feed into the airport themselves need to be revitalized, especially Pleasantburg Drive, once the choice location for retailers in the 1970s. Then came new waves of suburban flight, commercial activity following on its heels, and Pleasantburg was left with the auto-oriented businesses and fast food restaurants that exist now.
City Councilman David Sudduth, who serves as the Council’s airport liaison, said the city has put a “significant amount of investment” into the corridor, including $22 million in upgrades at the TD Convention Center, and has a master plan that looks at connecting the center to the rich tax base on Haywood Road.
Tower Drive, the main road to the airport, has been spruced up as well, said Ramseur, the development coordinator, but the city decided to put a bulk of investment into the other end of Pleasantburg when The Fresh Market opened in 2008.
More mixed-use redevelopment could happen at the Pleasantburg Shopping Center and other areas with access to I-385 once the bus rapid-transit line takes off, she said. Plus, the corridor has an advantage over the city’s other commercial arteries — chunks of land that can hold large-scale development and strong institutional anchors to sustain that growth.
“It takes time,” Ramseur said. “We’ve done some of the major things, and now it’s just a matter of the private sector coming back in and investing as well.”
Meanwhile, the airport is focusing on a new 1.5-acre park that opened last fall as a way to give back to the community. Aviation-inspired playground equipment will soon be installed around walking paths painted to look like a real runway. A piece of a Boeing 737 fuselage, hollowed out and fixed to the ground, will serve as the entrance.
As with the operations at the Downtown Airport, no city or county money has been used. Grants and in-kind donations, including $20,000 from the Greenville Jet Center, will pay for the park in stages.
“The thing that we are most proud of is we’re totally self-supporting,” Frasher said. “We’re really a model of what you want your special purpose districts to be.”