COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s a space you can’t get to and behind the scenes at the airport, high up in the air and behind a chain-link fence. Inside, a group of people are making sure you and your loved ones travel safely for the holidays this year.
You don’t see them when you check-in, go through security, or board your plane, but they make sure you get from the ground to the sky without hassle or trouble.
In a sun-filled room one hundred feet above Columbia Metropolitan Airport, air traffic controllers like Matt Trimble are keeping an eye on the skies and the ground.
“I've been an air traffic controller for just over seven years,” Trimble said while holding a pair of binoculars.
Trimble studied in Pennsylvania, worked in New Hampshire, and then eventually moved to Columbia’s tower several hundred feet from the passenger terminal.
He's also a private pilot, meaning he understands how important good directions are for commercial and private flights.
“We perform a pretty important job, a very important job in making sure everything's orderly, expeditious, but overall, mostly, the most important part is safety,” Trimble said.
Air traffic control teams handle a plane on the ground, while it taxis, takes-off, climbs to a cruising altitude, and remains in their airspace. Not to mention, they have to give safe direction the whole time.
It's why even on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, someone is in the tower and terminal radar approach control (TRACON) facility, which monitors radar.
Together, they make sure grandma doesn't get run over by a reindeer or passenger jet.
“The things we deal with day in and day out, especially this time of year, get pretty hectic and you know it's an incredible job that we do and that we're able to perform to be able to get everybody from point a to point b safely, efficiently, and expeditiously,” Trimble said.
In fact, they expect Columbia's air traffic to grow. Last year, the tower handled more than 56,000 flight operations. This year, through October the number is already past 50,000.
Air Traffic Manager Todd Hower says it's not just passengers using the airport more each day.
“Because of Amazon, they're quite busy. Normally, during the year, we get about 5 UPS airplanes departures and arrivals a day. Right now, because of Christmas time, we're averaging about 15 to 20,” Hower said, adding FedEx is also using the airport more this time of year.
Passenger flights are up along with shipping. The holidays bring about 137 take offs and landings a day compared to about 90-100 on a regular day.
And it doesn’t stop, even with Santa overhead those watching on radar are usually working.
“So I've missed quite a few Christmases and Thanksgivings, but as a family you just learn how to do them on different days. We've done Thanksgivings on Wednesdays, we've done Christmases- if it's on a Tuesday we've done it on a Thursday,” Hower said. “It's not easy, but my kids have done a pretty good job of having alternate holidays and alternate birthdays.”
Hower is retired U.S. Air Force and has handled air traffic for more than 20 years.
And for curious minds, it's true, these professionals said the Wednesday before Thanksgiving really is the busiest day of the year, requiring a few extra staff members.
While they're not Santa’s elves, their gift to you is a safe trip.
“Absolutely, yeah, I'm very proud of the work we do here in Columbia as well as the other facilities around us and throughout the entire national airspace system,” Trimble said smiling.