COLUMBIA — Intrigued by the prospect of flights between Columbia and Memphis, Tenn., but also attracted to cheaper fares for frequent flights to and from Kansas City, members of the Airport Advisory Board on Wednesday were evenly split on which of three airlines to recommend to take over essential air service at Columbia Regional Airport.
Three airlines — Great Lakes Aviation of Cheyenne, Wyo.; Mesaba Airlines of Eagan, Minn.; and Hawaii’s Island Air of Honolulu — have submitted proposals to the U.S. Department of Transportation to replace Mesa Airlines, which as Air Midwest has been providing essential air service at the Columbia airport since October 2006. Mesa has said it simply can’t make a profit on flights to and from Kansas City, given low passenger numbers and rising fuel costs. It told the DOT in January that it was filing to end service in Columbia by April 20.
The Airport Advisory Board was the first public entity to formally review the three bids submitted on March 21. Four members voted in favor of the Great Lakes proposal to fly to and from Kansas City; the other four favored Mesaba’s flights to and from Memphis.
Great Lakes representatives attended the meeting to make their pitch. Its proposal calls for four daily flights to and from Kansas City International Airport, with one-way fares costing about $75. It seeks an annual federal subsidy of $1.6 million and estimates it could attract a minimum of 22,500 passengers per year.
Board members generally liked the Great Lakes proposal, primarily because of the frequency of flights and the relatively inexpensive fares. By comparison, Air Midwest tickets cost more than $150. The members were also intrigued by Great Lakes’ offer to advertise Columbia on the tail of their airplanes.
One reservation members had, however, is that Great Lakes lacks sufficient airplanes to provide the services for which they’ve already contracted. Monica Taylor, a spokeswoman for Great Lakes, said the airline will need to acquire 10 more planes if it lands contracts for serving Columbia and Joplin.
Others advisory board members leaned toward the Mesaba plan, which calls for two or three round-trip flights per day to Memphis. One-way fares would cost $95.
Board members who leaned toward the Mesaba bid noted that efforts to generate interest in flights to Kansas City simply haven’t worked.
Board member Greg Cecil also argued that Memphis is the better destination overall. Mesaba, which has a partnership with Northwest Airlines, has said it can provide better connections to destinations all over the country and even to Europe and Asia.
“Memphis gives us access to all the places we want to go,” Cecil said. Airport manager Kathy Frerking agreed.
“Memphis is a hub, Kansas City is not,” Frerking said, adding that Mesaba’s planes, which carry 34 passengers, are larger than those of Great Lakes, which carry only 19 people.
Mesaba wants an annual subsidy of $900,000 to $2.2 million, depending on the number of flights, and estimates it would attract 25,000 to 29,000 passengers per year.
Board members were somewhat dismissive of the proposal by Hawaii’s Island Air, which Cecil said “is out of sync” with what Columbia wants: connections to more destinations. Hawaii Island has offered two or three daily flights to Kansas City at a cost of $49 to $109 one way, depending on when tickets are purchased. It seeks a subsidy of between $1.3 million and $2 million. Board members also disliked Hawaii Island’s proposed flight times.
Although the advisory board plans to hear a pitch from Mesaba at its next meeting, it will forward the input from Wednesday’s meeting to the Columbia City Council. City staff and the council are also reviewing the bids, and the DOT anticipates input from Jefferson City officials as well.
Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the DOT, has offered no timetable on when a successor to Air Midwest will be chosen but said the agency will act as soon as possible.