A line of passengers clutching suitcases and travel pillows form the TSA security line on a Friday morning at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport. They unload bags, pass through security and disperse throughout the airport – getting drinks, popping in headphones and settling into thin leather seats outside their gates.
United’s first direct daily flight to San Francisco leaves from a gate now strewn with blue and white balloons. A man plays pop music on an acoustic guitar while waiting passengers munch on hors d’oeuvres.
Theresa Seybold taps her feet to the music. "It’s really a big plus that I can hop on this flight and get a nonstop to San Francisco," she says.
Like many residents, Seybold hasn’t always had an easy time traveling outside of Columbus.
"I’m originally from New York City, where you can hop on a plane and go anywhere at any time," Seybold says. "And that has not been the case in Columbus."
This new direct daily flight to San Francisco is the result of years of conversations and negotiations between the airport and United Airlines – just like every new direct daily flight. Airport and city officials say securing more of these flights will be key to Columbus’ future economic growth.
How Direct Flights Boost Economy
John Glenn International CEO Joe Nardone says United’s direct daily flights to San Francisco took several years to negotiate, and it should pay off.
"It’s a really important thing for the business traveler," Nardone says. "San Francisco is a business hub."
That was also the thinking in 2015 when the city celebrated the launch of daily direct service between Columbus and Oakland. At the time, city officials said it would generate up to $20 million a year for the Central Ohio economy and open the region to capital in the Bay Area.
But Southwest dropped the daily flight last year.
"I would say it’s on a little bit shorter of a schedule and a little bit of a reduced schedule," Nardone says.
Nardone says the business group Columbus 2020 gives the airport information that they in turn show to airlines. Columbus 2020 North American business development director Matt McQuade says companies deciding on whether to set up shop in Columbus look at talent pools and operating costs among other factors.
"But eventually they’re gonna look at, 'Where can we get to easily?'" McQuade explains. "So if you don’t have a direct flight, you’re gonna get eliminated just based on that."
City leaders speculated that part of the reason Amazon overlooked Columbus for their second North American headquarters was limited transportation options.
McQuade says Columbus attracted Facebook and Google to open offices in the area, and they’re both from Silicon Valley. Competition for Columbus comes from cities like Pheonix and Denver.
“A lot of California companies have been looking in those markets where Columbus could do the same exact thing,” McQuade says. “And now we’re four and a half hours away instead of seven.”
Expanding Flight Options
Columbus' strategy is to recruit established airlines to open more direct flights, rather than to try and become a hub, which is unlikely to happen.
“What do you want to do if you have the option: Invest money just in the airport to increase capacity, or use resources to try to get connections to additional markets?” McQuade says.
After a couple of past hub attempts, John Glenn International chose to focus on the latter.
America West Airlines used Columbus as its secondary hub from 1993-2003. Its flights began to be branded as US Airways in 2006, and it eventually merged with American Airlines. The US Airways name was retired in 2015.
Skybus Airlines launched in Columbus in 2007. The low-cost carrier aimed to be one of the cheapest airlines in the United State, but went out of business less than a year later.
Columbus is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the Midwest and the only Midwestern city on America’s list of Top 15 fastest growing cities. By 2030, Columbus is also slated to become the biggest metropolitan area in Ohio.
“We’re just, I think, 90,000 people behind Cincinnati,” McQuade says.
The direct flight availability impacts non-business travelers, as well. Early Friday morning, Robert Ravenscroft is heading to San Francisco to visit his wife’s cousin and friends. Being able to find direct flights can make or break his travel decisions.
“Because of flight delays and issues with connecting flights, I always look for direct flights,” Ravenscroft says.
Columbus started a daily direct flight to Seattle in March, and it will start a direct flight to Salt Lake City at the end of June. There are now more than 150 daily departures to 40 destinations.
The next goal, according to McQuade, is secure a direct daily flight to a destination in Europe.
“It is a strategic priority for us to have international air service to Europe,” McQuade says. “So looking at markets like Dublin, Ireland, London, Paris.”
McQuade says this would increase foreign investment in the city.
“I know that case is being made constantly," he says. "It’s a long case to be made, but it would be ideal if we could land it.”