By Allen Turner, The News Reporter
The Columbus County Municipal Airport had $164.64 million in annual local economic impact in 2017, the most recent year for which data analysis is available, according to a new report by N.C. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division.
That represents increases of more than 30 percent across all categories — total economic output, number of jobs generated, total personal income generated and state and local taxes generated — over 2016.
There are 10 commercial airports and 62 general aviation airports like Columbus County’s in the state.
Statewide, aviation-related economic input increased to $52 billion, up from $31 billion in 2016.
The increase in economic output was primarily due to two factors, economic growth and new ways of reporting the numbers.
The general aviation analysis measured the impact of jobs supported by the airports directly, jobs supported by businesses that rely on the airports and the impact of visitors.
Total economic output at the local airport increased by nearly 35 percent, rising to $164.64 million from $121.98 million. There were 495 aviation-related jobs (both direct and indirect) in the county, compared to 380 the year before, an increase of 30 percent, and aviation-related personal income in the county increased from $30.2 million from $22.58 million in 2016, or a 34 percent jump. State and local taxes generated by the Columbus County Municipal Airport in 2017 were $20.411 million, a 32 percent increase over 2016’s $15.521 million.
North Carolina’s system of 72 public airports transports more than 62 million business and leisure travelers a year and moves more than 850,000 tons of high-value, time-sensitive cargo such as medical supplies and advanced manufacturing components.
Ninety-four percent of the state’s population lives within a half-hour drive of a public airport, according to the report. The general aviation airports like Columbus County’s connect business and communities to global markets, house and refuel private aircraft, support agricultural and military aviation and provide aviation services such as aerial photography and pilot training.
The Columbus County Municipal Airport is one of the most popular refueling stops on the East Coast, in part due to its location about halfway between big cities in the Northeast and Florida. Much of its traffic is repeat business and some longtime customers fly out of their way in order to refuel here
Ray Muraszko, a corporate airplane pilot who lives in New Jersey, makes frequent visits each year when he and his wife travel to their vacation home in Georgia, and they attribute their loyalty to the Columbus County airport to Phil and Mary Edwards, the husband-and-wife airport managers. “We wouldn’t consider stopping someplace else,” says Muraszko.
Although planes arriving for fuel during business hours are serviced by either Edwards or by Joe Thompson, the airport’s only full time employee, pilots also can land here after hours and purchase the fuel they need by inserting a credit card into the pump, much like a motorist at a convenience store. At night, pilots can activate the runway lighting system via radio.
Edwards, who flew his own airplanes even before he became involved with the airport, enjoys what he does and has no plans for retiring. “I plan to stay here as long as I can keep making a positive impact, and for as long as they’ll let me stay. I enjoy it.”
Twenty-seven aircraft are based at the local airport and it sees about 17,000 operations, or takeoffs and landings, annually.
In addition to general aviation, corporate customers include HARPO, Inc. (Oprah Winfrey’s company), Liberty Medical, the Atlantic Corporation, R.J. Corman Railroad, BB&T Bank, Lowe’s Corp., First Community Bank, Top Tobacco, and DNS Pump. Medical industry users include Duke University Medical Center, UNC-Chapel Hill and Carolinas Health Care. Military and agricultural users also make frequent use of the airport. Planes working out of the airport have been used for such diversified local activities as fertilizing trees at tree farms and a Department of Natural Resources project to count birds in the area.
“We’ve got a good airport,” Edwards said. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but the airport is one of the most important parts of the infrastructure here because it’s really the gateway to the county.”