Mesaba starting Aug. 19, Air Midwest leaving June 30 creates gap

Sunday, June 1, 2008 | 4:38 p.m. CDT; updated 10:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Even though the transition from Air Midwest to Mesaba Airlines as the provider of commercial air service at Columbia Regional Airport will cause a 49-day gap in service this summer, city officials and others say that should cause few problems and that the advent of flights to Memphis is ripe with new possibilities for turning the airport around.

Air Midwest, which announced in January that it would discontinue its flights to Kansas City and end its contract as Columbia’s essential air service provider, will completely phase out its service in Columbia on June 30. Mesaba, however, won’t start flights for its three daily flights to Memphis until Aug. 19, creating the 49-day gap.

Jill Stedem, spokeswoman for the Public Works Department, said cargo and general aviation flights will run at the airport, and air flight safety officers will continue working 24 hours a day.

Stedem said having the gap in air carrier service during the summer months wasn’t intentional. The city knew there was a possibility Air Midwest would leave Columbia before scheduled end date of Sept. 30, but no one was sure until the U.S. Department of Transportation notified the city of the change. Stedem said the city knew, though, that it would be between 90 and 120 days after the contract with Mesaba was complete before it could get aircraft and crews to Columbia.

“We would have dealt with that regardless of who was chosen,” she said.

Paula Thomas, a consultant at Great Southern Tiger Travel, has heard no complaints from clients concerning the coming gap. She said she thinks that it might affect some Columbia residents initially but that many are already used to driving from here to Kansas City or to St. Louis for flights.

“In the summer, Columbia being a college town, a lot of people aren’t flying (for business purposes),” she said,

Jerry Price, owner of Summit Travel, said he hasn’t heard any complaints either.

Without complaints from the public regarding the gap in service, Stedem, Price and Thomas are looking toward the future, exploring how commercial air service in Columbia can grow through Mesaba and the city’s marketing efforts. Commercial flights at the airport have suffered for years as various carriers have failed to provide reliable service, as prices have risen and, consequently, passenger numbers have declined.

Stedem provided statistics on deplanements and enplanements at Columbia Regional Airport from 1997 to the present. They show passenger numbers have plummeted over the past 10 years. In 1997, there a total of 50,207 passengers leaving or coming to Columbia; the 2007 total was 17,982.

Mesaba, which will receive a $2.2 million annual subsidy through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s essential air service program, has said its goal is to net 14,527 passengers a year.

Price said that, based on his observations from the past eight months, he believes people are shopping around more for flights from St. Louis or Kansas City.

“Demand got so low there for awhile that I think people were booking around the Columbia Regional Airport,” he said, adding that new marketing efforts by the city should emphasize the possible vacation destinations that open up with Mesaba flights, as well as the convenience and price Mesaba promises to bring here. Once a Columbia passenger reaches Memphis, they can fly directly to more than 80 destinations in the United States and even Europe.

“Getting people in the seat and to their destination is going to be the biggest challenge and best way to sell the service,” Price said.

Stedem said the city is already planning a marketing effort that the public should see in multiple forms within a few weeks.

“We’re going to build up a strong marketing campaign this summer to show mid-Missourians what we have to offer,” she said.

In fact, Lorah Steiner, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she, Stedem and airport manager Kathy Frerking will discuss airport marketing over a series of meetings. Marketing will include radio, TV and print publication ads emphasizing Mesaba’s flight times, customer service standards and connections from Memphis.

Ultimately, Steiner said Mesaba must provide the business community with on-time service and a good record of flight completions.

“To a business traveler — I can tell you as somebody who used to fly five days a week — that’s a huge difference,” she said.

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