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Memphis flights coming soon to Columbia

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | 6:50 p.m. CDT; updated 2:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — About four months after Columbia learned that Mesa Air would discontinue its flights to and from Kansas City, a decision has finally been made as to which air carrier will take its place. On Tuesday, Mesaba Airlines of Eagan, Minn., won the contract to provide essential air service at Columbia Regional Airport for at least the next two years.

Mesaba will provide three daily round-trip flights between Columbia and Memphis. The final decision came from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will pay Mesaba an annual subsidy of $2.2 million if it completes at least 97 percent of its flights.

FLIGHT PLAN

WHO IS MESABA AIRLINES?

A subsidiary of Northwest Airlines based in Eagan, Minn.

WHAT SERVICE WILL IT PROVIDE?

Three daily round-trip flights between Columbia Regional and Memphis International airports. Memphis is a hub that offers connections to 83 to 88 cities daily.

HOW MUCH WILL FLIGHTS COST?

One-way fares will be about $95.

WHAT KIND OF PLANE DOES MESABA USE?

A Saab 340 that seats up to 34. The planes have bathrooms and flight attendants. W

HAT’S IN IT FOR MESABA?

The U.S. Department of Transportation will pay an annual subsidy of $2.2 million as long Mesaba completes 97 percent of its flights. Mesaba estimates it will serve 14,527 passengers per year.

WHAT’S THE FLIGHT SCHEDULE?

Mesaba’s bid calls for flights to Memphis to leave Columbia at 5:54 a.m., 11:25 a.m. and 4:25 p.m. each day, and for flights to Columbia to leave Memphis at 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 7:40 p.m. each day. Flights would take about 90 minutes.


The decision matches the recommendation of the Columbia City Council and the city staff, which cited several reasons for recommending Mesaba. One advantage, city staff said, was that flights to Memphis would offer a better option than flights to Kansas City and St. Louis, which have failed to prove profitable over the past several years.

The Memphis airport also is a major hub, which would allow Columbia fliers could make many one-stop connections to major destinations in the United States and even Europe. The staff also found streamlined security appealing; passengers flying out of Columbia would have to go through security only once rather than dealing with the hassle of going in and out with each airport stop.

It remained unclear on Tuesday when Mesaba would begin its flights. When it does, it will replace Mesa Air, which has been providing essential air service at the Columbia airport since October 2006 as Air Midwest. Mesa announced in January that it would discontinue flights to Kansas City, saying it was losing too much money. Mesa’s service has been declining, and its ticket prices rising, since it won the federal contract.

Several city representatives and residents praised the decision on Tuesday.

City Manager Bill Watkins believes Mesaba will become a selling point for Columbia.

“We have got an airline that can overcome past service,” said Watkins. “The flights will be coming into a hub which will allow fliers to go anywhere more conveniently.”

Watkins also said Mesaba’s larger planes will be “more attractive” to passengers and the three daily flights offered will help them reach their connections.

Although Watkins is pleased with the decision, he is still looking into flights to other hubs such as Chicago and Dallas. “The more direct flights to as many hubs as possible will better serve the flying public,” Watkins said.

Airport Advisory Board member David Rosman, a supporter of the Mesaba proposal since it submitted its bid, feels that with the cost of gas prices and people wanting to travel, Mesaba’s flights will only help.

“It is the right place, the right time and the right cost,” Rosman said.

Despite the fact that Rosman is pleased with the decision, he feels that the most important thing is to get the public involved.

“Mesaba can only do so much,” Rosman said. “They can do everything right, but if the city, universities, colleges and hospitals don’t promote the airport, the same thing is going to happen.”

Don Miles, another member of the advisory board, who favored a proposal from Great Lakes Aviation of Cheyenne, Wyo., to continue providing flights to Kansas City, said he is indifferent about the decision to go with Mesaba. He agreed with Rosman that Columbia residents must step up to the plate.

“It is going to be a long time till we get first-class service, because Columbia isn’t supporting the airport,” Miles said. “It has always been too easy to get in a car and be in line at St. Louis airport in two hours.”

Don Laird, executive director of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, was among those who believe Mesaba’s flights to Memphis have the potential to turn the airport operation around.

“We can use Mesaba the best we can to get people to use service and come to Columbia,” Laird said. “This is something we need to help grow as a community.”

Jill Stedem, spokeswoman for the Columbia Public Works Department, said she, too, is optimistic.

“We haven’t had good luck with air service, and we have lost a lot of clientele,” Stedem said. “We have a lot of work to do, but hopefully since Memphis is a hub, this will help people get to their destinations.”


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