Posted February 3, 2008 06:36 pm - Updated February 3, 2008 07:26 pm

I’m leavin' (from Columbia) on a jet plane

I did something I wasn’t proud of the other day – I booked a flight out of Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

What made me feel even worse was that I clicked the “accept” button on my computer to buy for a round-trip ticket to Phoenix while ink was still wet on the invitations to Augusta Regional Airport’s new-and-improved terminal building – a facility specifically designed to encourage greater use of the airport.

Many Augusta consumers would have made the decision without hesitation or a shred of guilt. Some of these folks are the same type of people who will spend 30 minutes in a mom-and-pop shoe store trying on 15 pairs of wingtips to find the one they like before driving to a big box store (where such service does not exist) to buy the same shoe for a couple of bucks less.

Here’s the thing with me: I like Augusta’s airport * and I (generally) don’t cringe at the higher price I pay for the convenience of using a low-traffic local facility.

I like being able to drive 20 minutes to the airport, instead of an hour or two. I like being able to walk a few hundred feet to my gate instead of a few thousand. I like knowing that my 30-inch, green upright suitcase will be easy to spot on the baggage claim carousel.

With the exception of one international trip, every flight I have ever booked while living in Augusta has originated from Augusta’s airport. The fares on each of those flights from Augusta Regional have always been “reasonable,” which I define as being within $100 or $150 of Atlanta or Columbia.

So, you ask, what happened with this latest trip? The short answer is: I was too slow.
While planning this Arizona excursion (which includes attending a wedding, seeing some old friends and visiting my hometown for the first time since the Clinton administration), I found what I would call a reasonable fare from Augusta Regional to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International. I did not, however, purchase the ticket just then because I had a few loose ends to tie up before committing to the cross-country trip.

Forty-eight hours later, after said loose ends were tied, the ticket price from Augusta was no longer reasonable.

I’ve always heard travel agents and airport officials say airfares can change “hour by hour,” and this was proof positive – the fare had jumped nearly $200 even though the scheduled departure date was still well within the “21-day advance purchase” range.
The moral to this tale: Always check fares out of Augusta first, and when you see a good one, book it.

AUGUSTA CALLING: If aliens landed in Augusta tomorrow, they would deduce the hot industry around town appears to have something to do with very large buildings with very large numbers of people processing very large volumes of data and telephone calls.
Whatever you call the big buildings – call centers, solution centers, customer service centers, back-office operations – there’s a chance they will stay hot in the coming years because the city has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the managers of these facilities uber-impressed.

During last week’s groundbreaking ceremony for Automatic Data Processing’s 160,000-square-foot building in west Augusta (a stone’s throw from the new 80,000-square-foot T-Mobile call center), ADP Vice President Steve Penrose said that employees at the company’s temporary offices on Stevens Creek Road are already scoring higher on certain performance metrics than ADP employees elsewhere.
That’s what you call a ringing endorsement.

Walter Sprouse, the executive director of the Richmond County Development Authority, said after the event that he planned to get a tape of the news footage and send copies out to other expansion-minded companies. If I were him, I’d do that, too.

I’LL HAVE SOUTHERNERS IN BOW TIES FOR $800 , ALEX: Mr. Sprouse is a smart dude, but his son Andrew is so smart that he was able to get on the game show Jeopardy!

The younger Mr. Sprouse, who works for a historic preservation firm in Durham, N.C., came in second place during the show that aired Wednesday.

That’s pretty good, considering how difficult it is to just get on the show. Not only do you need above-average intelligence, but Jeopardy! insiders say it also helps to be “telegenic.”

The Sprouse family believes Andrew’s bow tie gave him an edge in that department.

: $7.3 million – the amount of money Augusta- area homeowners will have spent sprucing their homes up for Masters Week rentals.

: $19.3 million – amount of money they will earn on the rentals.

NOW, BACK TO CALL CENTERS FOR A MOMENT: I’ve heard many debates on whether back-office-type facilities make for “good jobs” in Augusta. This discussion has gone on long before the arrival of T-Mobile and ADP.

The sentiment sounds something like this: “This town’s losin’ good, high-paying manufacturing jobs, and the only new jobs coming in are these low-wage office jobs. And that just ain’t right.”

Want to know what I think?

Well, I’m going to tell you anyway.

Yes, it’s true that entry- and midlevel employees at T-Mobile, ADP and the area’s other back-office operations earn less than their counterparts at industrial sites such as E-Z-Go or DSM Chemicals or Procter & Gamble.

When was the last time this region scored a new manufacturer that would be on par with any of those companies? The only two that come to my mind are the Bridgestone/Firestone and John Deere plants in Aiken and Columbia counties, respectively, and those are more than a decade old.

Whether we like it or not, manufacturing isn’t a growth industry anymore. New industrial projects are few and far between. ** Georgia lost 98,700 manufacturing jobs from 2000-07; South Carolina lost 91,400.

Someday this region will get another large manufacturing plant (cross your fingers for an auto factory), but until it does, we should be happy with any job creation we get.

CHEERS! Aiken Brewing Co. over the weekend celebrated pulling it’s millionth pint. The 11-year-old business, famous for its Randy’s Grand Cru, a 2003 Great American Beer Festival silver medal winner, produced more than 435 barrels of beer last year.
Mmmmmm, beer.

* Especially since the new terminal opened.

** Although a Korean tire company announced last week it will build a $225 million, 450-employee factory in Macon, Ga., and an industrial site near Savannah is reportedly on Volkswagen’s short list for a proposed North American plant.