City staff recommends flights to Memphis

Saturday, April 19, 2008 | 6:18 p.m. CDT; updated 4:10 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — A proposal from Minnesota-based Mesaba Aviation Inc. to provide three round-trip flights per day between Columbia Regional and Memphis International airports has won the favor of city staff.

Public Works Director John Glascock said in a report to the Columbia City Council, which will hold a public hearing on the matter Monday night, that Mesaba’s pitch to become the city’s new essential air service carrier is the best of three submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation. It’s also the most expensive; Mesaba is seeking an annual subsidy of nearly $2.2 million from the federal government to provide the flights.

A Mesaba proposal to fly to and from Memphis twice per day — at an annual subsidy of $891,261 — is the city staff’s second choice.

The transportation department also received bids from Hawaii Island Air of Honolulu and Great Lakes Aviation of Cheyenne, Wyo., both of which proposed daily round-trip flights between Columbia and Kansas City. Glascock is urging the council to disregard the Hawaii Island proposal, saying its inability to provide early-morning flights is unacceptable. The Great Lakes proposal has merit, Glascock wrote, but he cited concerns about the airline’s inability to provide the service until it acquires more planes and about the fact that many travelers prefer to either drive or take shuttles to the Kansas City airport.

The three airlines are competing to replace Air Midwest, which announced in January that it was losing so much money that it would have to discontinue its daily flights to and from Kansas City this spring.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is seeking input from Columbia and surrounding communities on who should get the new essential air service contract, but it will make the final decision. Glascock said in his report that he discussed the proposals with consulting firm Mead and Hunt and representatives of MU, Jefferson City, the Lake of the Ozarks area, the state and Regional Economic Development Inc. before making his recommendation.

The Mesaba proposals are best, Glascock wrote, because Memphis is a major hub that offers superior connectivity for passengers, especially given the fact that Mesaba is owned by Northwest Airlines.

“Utilizing Mesaba for service to Memphis would allow regional travelers to benefit from a hub airport where Northwest Airlines currently offers 226 departures to 83 cities,” Glascock wrote. “In addition to Northwest, which offers the majority of flights from Memphis, connections can also be made through American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, AirTran, United and U.S. Airways.”

Glascock said the ability to fly directly from Memphis to Amsterdam, gaining access to destinations in Europe, Africa and Asia, is particularly appealing to MU, and he predicted passengers would appreciate Mesaba’s planes and streamlined security screenings.

“Two other strong selling points ... are the proposed aircraft, which is a 34-seat Saab 340 with a restroom, flight attendant and in-flight service, and the luxury of a single security checkpoint at Columbia Regional, as Memphis has a connector that keeps travelers in a secured area while making their connections,” he wrote.

Glascock’s recommendation follows that of the Airport Advisory Board, whose members were evenly split between the Mesaba and Great Lakes proposals. Board Chairman B.J. Hunter was one of four members who preferred the Great Lakes pitch.

“The idea of going to Memphis is fine but ignores everyone going westbound from Columbia,” Hunter said.

Don Miles also preferred Great Lakes, saying he liked the idea of four flights per day to Kansas City. He also argued that Great Lakes could operate more efficiently with its smaller planes.

“Beech 1900 airplanes have 19 seats,” Miles said. “There may be a better chance that this company would be able to keep it full and hopefully not go bankrupt.”

Board members Greg Cecil and David Rosman, who writes a column for the Missourian, preferred Mesaba’s bid.

“There is no other choice as far as I am concerned,” Cecil said, adding that he was drawn to the security convenience in Memphis.

Rosman likes Mesaba’s larger planes and its partnership with Northwest.

“With the direct line between Mesaba and Northwest, there is more likelihood to get deals on flying,” Rosman said.

Two travel agents who spoke with the Missourian were split on the issue. Dan Stookey of Great Southern Global Travel, whose company emphasizes leisure travel, feels his customers would benefit most from flights to Memphis.

“Northwest connects to around 80 cities, which would feed well into Mexico and the Caribbean. The southerly travel would be better,” Stookey said.

Paula Thomas of Tiger Travel, on the other hand, prefers the Great Lakes plan.

“Kansas City is a hard market because of flight connections, but it is needed,” Thomas said. “We have done flights to Northwest before, and no one wants to fly to Memphis.”

Thomas said her business travelers mostly want an air carrier they can trust and won’t leave them scrambling to get to Kansas City. Air Midwest has been criticized for frequent flight delays or cancellations and for its high fares.

Mesaba’s primary option calls for three flights per day from Columbia to Memphis, leaving at 5:54 a.m., 11:25 a.m. and 4:25 p.m., and three flights from Memphis to Columbia, leaving at 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 7:40 p.m. The flights would take about an hour and a half. Fares would average $95. Mesaba estimates it would serve 14,527 passengers per year.

The Great Lakes proposal calls for four daily flights from Columbia to Kansas City, leaving at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 1:45 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., and four daily flights from Kansas City to Columbia, leaving at 7:50 a.m., 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. The flights take about 45 minutes. Fares would average $75. Great Lakes estimates it would serve 11,250 passengers per year.

Missourian reporter Hannah Zimmerman contributed to this report.

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