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$200M Charleston airport renovation wraps up

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Charleston International Airport’s look is no longer stuck in the 1980s.

The formerly dark interior, old carpet and brown tile floors that clacked loudly as suitcases rolled across them pegged the terminal to its decade of construction.

A $200 million renovation replaced that outdated style with modern, bright designs and new furniture equipped with outlets. Business leaders, airport employees and board members gathered this morning to rededicate the airport and celebrate the completion of the Terminal Redevelopment and Improvement Program.

Floor-to-ceiling windows and glass walls allow sunlight to stream in and give passengers a front-row view of the jets taking off and arriving. The security checkpoint has been consolidated from two locations to one, and more lanes have been added.

Charleston County Aviation Authority CEO Paul Campbell said an expansion was needed to handle passenger growth at the airport. Growth has averaged about 3% annually since 1985, but it has jumped nearly 70% since 2010, hitting 3.4 million passengers in 2015. Four million passengers are expected to come through next year.

The 31-year-old building required major updates to its technology infrastructure, heating and cooling systems and baggage claim. The airport also received a facelift with a more modern aesthetic, plus nine new restaurants and seven new retail shops.

The Charleston airport often makes the first and last impression on business travelers and tourists, and it should be an impactful gateway for the Lowcountry, Campbell said.

“It was aged, and it was time to do something with it, and the growth dictated that we needed additional capacity,” said Campbell, who is also a state senator for parts of Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.

Officials consider the four-year project to be complete, though some work remains in a few areas — construction continues on three eateries, some art needs to be hung, and a memorial for the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston is slated to open in March.

Looking forward, airport leaders are now planning to build a Concourse C, add more airline ticketing space and build a parking deck.

“We’re in that 10-12% growth rate per year, and it’s not slowing down,” Campbell said. “Last year, the airline service grew 5%, and we grew over 10%, which is double what the rate is for the industry.”

Project challenges

Officials said the biggest hurdle the project had to overcome was rebuilding the terminal on the existing footprint while keeping the airport functional — and accommodating more passengers each year.

Temporary eateries were set up. Passenger walkways were constantly rerouted, and signs directed travelers around the airport. Airlines were shuffled to whatever spaces were available as construction progressed. Thousands of employees, construction workers and travelers were on-site each day.

“Nobody anticipated the growth we were going through during construction,” Campbell said. “We were tearing down and rebuilding this airport while having 15,000 people a day. ... It was a real challenge to expand and rebuild the existing terminal at the same time.”

Campbell said a few flights were delayed because of construction but none were missed.

The airport board and staff faced other challenges, including budget increases to accommodate a clerestory structure in Concourse A to match the skylight-like feature in Concourse B. Money also had to be spent on asbestos remediation throughout the airport. Asbestos-containing materials were used during the original construction of the airport in the early 1980s, and demolition revealed hazardous materials. All of the asbestos-laced materials were safely removed according to state regulations.

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