Airport closes for one week; will modify runway after complaints

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COLUMBIA - Columbia Regional Airport will close for a week starting Tuesday to make modifications to a runway that's been creating concerns for pilots and passengers.

"These drastic steps are required so that we can open COU back to all air traffic as quickly as possible and cause the least amount of disruption to our customers," Interim City Manager John Glascock said.

The announcement came Monday within an hour of United Airline affiliates SkyWest and Air Wisconsin saying they were canceling all flights to and from COU through next week. American Airlines made a similar announcement earlier in the day.

A series of delays and cancelations that began Thursday, raised concern among passengers, who flooded COU's Facebook page with comments. Many said their pilots had told them runway conditions were a problem.

Glascock said the chief concern is an area called "the crown," where back-up runway 13-31 connects with the main runway, 2-20, which is closed for maintenance. 

Such crowns are required by the FAA on all main runways to assist with water drainage, he said.

Passengers felt the "the crown" for take off last week before being notified about their flights home being canceled.

Jacque Sample siad she drove 13 hours from New Orleans because of the uncertainty with her flight home.

"I just rented a car and drove from New Orleans to Columbia because I have to get back to work," Sample said.

She and another passenger, Jamey Johnson, are also worried about being reimbursed for finding an alternate way to get home. 

Johnson said he and his friends spent hundreds of dollars to finally get home. 

"This that I'm concerned about now that I am home, is reimbursement for the flights I wasn't able to take and for the rental vehicle that I had," Sample said. "So that will be my next step in trying to figure out how to navigate that system as to get reimbursement."

Both Johnson and Sample said they felt "the crown," which they say felt like a speed bump when they were taking off. 

"The crown can cause the feeling of hitting a bump during take off and landing. Even though runway 13-31 is fully FAA complaint, we want to address the pilots' safety concerns and ensure our customers have a good experience flying in and out of COU," Glascock said.

He said the crown on 13-31 sits at an angle, which means a plane's wheels will hit it three times in quick succession.

The wobble can make passengers uneasy, Glascock said, but it's a sensation they're likely familiar with, if amplified.

"If you've ever driven down Broadway or Old 63 and you come to that light, it's at a skew and your car starts to wobble when you go across," he said.

The airport is "diligently" working with engineers to make minor modifications for a smoother take off and landing. That includes using asphalt to smooth things out, Glascock said.

He said the plan is to reopen April 16, depending on weather and other factors. The airline will offer regular updates to its customers and airline partners to be "transparent," Glascock said.

"I sincerely apologize to our customers who have been and will be impacted by this closure. We will work as quickly and efficiently as possible with our partners to make modifications and begin air service again soon," he said.

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