COLUMBIA — A Northwest Airlines representative came to Columbia this week to beat the drum for the air service it will begin offering in August between Columbia and Memphis through its Mesaba Aviation.
Jeff Brand met with MU officials on Wednesday and with nearly 30 business folks for a Thursday lunch at the Tiger Hotel. Then he met with travel agents over breakfast at the downtown Upper Crust restaurant on Friday.
The Missourian could not attend any of the meetings because Northwest Airlines policy forbids Brand from speaking to the press. The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, however, provided a list of those present at Thursday’s meeting, which the Columbia Chamber of Commerce hosted.
Mesaba will begin providing three flights a day between Columbia and Memphis on Aug. 19. Under its contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation, it will receive an annual subsidy of $2.2 million to provide the service.
Brand’s meetings complemented the city’s efforts to market the commercial flights coming to Columbia Regional Airport. In addition, the city is working to drum up interest in the airline with advertising aimed at attracting all types of travelers.
Bob Gerding, a partner at a certified public accountants firm in Columbia, attended Thursday’s event. Gerding said he has never used local commercial air service but will in the future. It’s a boost for the regional economy, more convenient for him than a shuttle to St. Louis and a good way to combat the rising cost of driving to the airport, he said.
“I did not know that they had so many direct flights out of Memphis, both nationally and internationally,” Gerding said of Northwest Airlines. “I was blown away.”
The nearly 80 connections available from the Memphis hub would increase if Northwest merges with Delta airlines as expected.
Wayne Whitehead attended Thursday’s meeting to learn whether fares from Columbia to Memphis would be affordable and convenient enough for his business. Mesaba has said its one-way fares will be $95.
“Of course, it was good to see so much enthusiasm from the airport manager (Kathy Frerking) and the gentleman from Northwest Airlines,” Whitehead said. “If we can just convince people to fly out of Columbia, that’s the main thing.”
Whitehead is one of the Columbia directors at Shafer, Kline & Warren Inc. The company, headquartered in Kansas, just started a project in Tunica, Miss., that is intended to improve retail and residential infrastructure in the town, which is only about 30 miles from Memphis and its airport. Whitehead said Memphis flights would be an obvious advantage for his company.
But it will take more information to convince Whitehead that fares out of Columbia are more affordable than taking a shuttle or driving.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I didn’t really get good answers (from the meeting).”
On Wednesday, Brand spoke with MU’s business services department. Paul Toler, the department’s director, said on Friday that he learned a lot about the perks Northwest Airlines offers to big businesses.
MU officials look for ways to maximize time and money for students, faculty and staff, Toler said, especially because MU spends millions of dollars on travel each year.
“For one, we’re excited about the opportunity good commercial air service will present to the university,” Toler said.
The advantages of Columbia flights to Memphis include shorter connecting times, fewer connections to reach international destinations and more nonstop flights, said Chyrstal Shiverdecker, a consultant at Summit Travel.
Shiverdecker said she deals mostly with leisure travelers booking trips to Memphis primarily to visit family. And based on her recent sales and conversations with customers, Memphis is more of a connection destination than a vacation destination.
Lorah Steiner, director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, browsed a Web site for the Eastern Iowa Airport on Thursday. The site, crairport.org, is the model for Columbia Regional Airport’s new Web portal, which Steiner said will be up and running in about a month. The site will track flights in real time and list fares for flights out of Columbia, among other features.
It must now find a main contact at Northwest Airlines to act as marketing spokesperson for the essential air service program, though the airline is already doing more than any other provider the airport has worked with in the past, Steiner said.