Air Midwest could be compelled to continue flights

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 | 9:58 p.m. CST; updated 11:02 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Ed Warner watches the landing strip of the Columbia Regional Airport from the baggage claim room Wednesday afternoon.

Although Air Midwest was complying with federal regulations when it gave 90 days’ notice of its intent to end flights to and from Columbia Regional Airport, it could be compelled to continue flights until a successor is found.

Air Midwest, a subsidiary of Mesa Air Group that has been providing flights to and from Columbia as U.S. Airways Express since October 2006, notified the city and the U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday that it plans to discontinue those flights April 20. The airline receives an annual subsidy of $598,751 from the federal government to provide those flights.

Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Wednesday that it’s not uncommon for providers of essential air service to pull out of the cities they serve. Air Midwest has served several similar notices of its intent to end service to communities in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

“It’s happening from time to time,” Mosley said. “It’s not an infrequent occurrence. They have provided 90 days’ notice. As long as they provide the notice, they can pull out.”

Mosley added, however, that the department could require Air Midwest to continue providing flights until a successor is found. Tom Bacon, vice president of planning for Mesa Air Group, said that’s what his company intends to do.

“Our work now is to find a successor airline with the government. ... That may take a number of months,” Bacon said.

City Manager Bill Watkins said Tuesday that the city plans to file a formal objection to Air Midwest’s notice.

Air Midwest has struggled since it began providing flights to St. Louis and Kansas City more than 15 months ago. Passenger numbers have been low, and that didn’t change when it ended St. Louis flights and doubled its daily trips to and from Kansas City in July.

Several weeks ago, Air Midwest nearly tripled its ticket prices. It once charged $69 for a one-way flight but raised that price to more than $150, citing an increase in fuel prices.

“We had to increase fares, and we’re still not making money,” Bacon said.

Norm Benedict, former president of the Mid-Missouri Tourism Council and an advocate of improved air service in Columbia, lamented the loss of Air Midwest but criticized its service.

“They promised the city of Columbia the world,” he said. “They’ve been awful. The company didn’t care.”

Jill Stedem, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Public Works Department, said there have been numerous occasions when Air Midwest flights were delayed or canceled.

Benedict said a viable regional airport operation is key if Columbia is to continue to thrive. But that, he said, will require marketing, and marketing means money. He cited Dubuque, Iowa, as an example, saying it spends about $200,000 per year to market its airport, while Columbia spends only $15,000.

“It’s going to take money. It’s going to take commitment,” Benedict said. “That’s what it really comes down to.”

For several months, Watkins has been involved in talks with MU, Jefferson City and the Tri-County Lodging Association at the Lake of the Ozarks about luring an airline to Columbia that would provide daily flights to Chicago. That probably would require some sort of passenger guarantee. In other words, those entities would pool a hefty sum of cash together to act as a subsidy for any airline willing to take the chance on providing service here. The Missourian reported in August that the figure on the table was $2 million.

Watkins has declined to discuss the progress of those talks but said the city will “redouble efforts to recruit a new airline.” And he plans to take a different tack.

“It needs to go someplace other than St. Louis and Kansas City.”

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