COLUMBIA — Columbia isn’t alone in its struggles with Mesa Air Group, which told the city and federal officials last week that it intends to stop flying from Columbia Regional Airport in April.
Mesa Air began providing flights to and from Columbia in October 2006 through an essential air service contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation. But even with an annual subsidy of $600,000 per year, it says, rising fuel prices and low passengers have kept it in the red.
Mesa is also pulling out of 10 other cities around the Midwest. Representatives in many of those cities report similar problems with Mesa, including rising ticket prices, canceled or delayed flights and generally unreliable service. None, however, fear losing air service altogether.
Hot Springs, Ark., Regional Airport has had a contract with Mesa Air since September 2002. It provides two round trips daily to Kansas City and Dallas-Fort Worth on weekdays and one round trip to Dallas and to Harrison, Ark., on Saturdays and Sundays. Over the past few years, ticket prices have gradually risen and passenger numbers have dipped.
“It is difficult to get people to use the airport when ticket prices are high and it is only 60 miles to Little Rock,” Hot Springs Airport Director George Downie said.
Downie also reported an unusual number of cancellations and flight delays within the past year due to maintenance issues.
“The cancellations continually got worse, and there was no solution in sight,” Downie said. “We complained, but there was a lack of response from upper management.”
Manhattan, Kan., also faced trouble with cancellations and delays with one of its morning flights.
“We had a 50 percent on-time average with the morning flight,” said Peter VanKuren, executive director of the Manhattan Regional Airport. Mesa eventually addressed that problem by keeping a plane in Manhattan overnight.
Manhattan, a college town, has been under contract with Air Mesa since the mid-1990s. It has three flights daily to Kansas City during the week, one on Saturday and two on Sunday. VanKuren said tickets were reasonably priced until January, when the cost spiked up by 150 percent.
“The prices are still high but have come down a little after two weeks of this increase,” VanKuren said.
At the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, Neb., which has been under contract with Mesa since October 2006, the main problem was not the ticket prices but Mesa’s habit of changing flight times without telling anyone, Airport Director Mike Olson said.
“There was a real lack of communication,” Olson said.
The same was true for El Dorado Regional Airport in Arkansas, where Mesa has been providing essential air service for over five years. It offers three daily flights to Dallas during the week and two on Saturdays and Sundays. Although ticket prices have never been a problem in El Dorado, the number of passenger boardings declined significantly from a total of 2,830 passengers in 2003 to 1,709 passengers in 2007.
El Dorado Mayor Mike Dumas cited problems with reliability.
“Boardings decreased because people didn’t know if they were going to fly,” Dumas said.
Kirksville Regional Airport in northern Missouri is an exception. Mesa provides two daily round-trips between Kirksville and Kansas City and has had a contract with Kirksville since November 2006. Kirksville Airport Director David Hall said Mesa has provided solid service.
“Mesa has done very well in regards to dependable flights,” Hall said. “They were an improvement from the previous carrier.”
Still, ticket prices at Kirksville soared in January, from $79 for a one-way fare to $179. They’ve since dipped down a bit.
“Mesa had a bit of a reality check,” Hall said. “They were going to lose passengers if they didn’t lower the price.”
Joplin Regional Airport in southwest Missouri, which has had a contract with Mesa since August 2006, also reports good service. Mesa provides four flights daily between Joplin and Kansas City during the week and two flights on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We have had reasonably constant prices since we have been in contract with Mesa,” Airport Manager Steve Stockam said. “Our passenger numbers increased 35 percent last year, and we were very profitable for the fact that we exceeded the essential air service estimate.”
Whether the service has been good or bad, Mesa has notified those cities and the federal government that it intends to halt service in the spring and find an alternate carrier.
“We are losing lots of money,” Tom Bacon, vice president of planning at Mesa, said. “It is not worth it to lose money, so we filed with the government to find a new carrier.”
Bacon said 98 percent of Mesa’s business is providing flights for major commercial airlines Delta, United, U.S. Airlines and the Independent Go Operation in Hawaii. It plans to pull away from essential air service and focus its efforts on serving those airlines.
Still, Bacon said, Mesa is committed to serving Columbia and other essential air service clients until new carriers are found.
“We are not going to abandon these cities,” he said.
Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the government will guarantee essential air service.
“We hold the carrier until we find a new air carrier,” Mosley said. “We issue a request of proposals, and if it doesn’t happen in 90 days we keep the carrier.”