COLUMBIA — Incoming MU freshman Stephanie Rovig didn’t expect such a huge welcome when she arrived in Columbia on Tuesday.
Rovig didn’t realize she was on the first incoming Mesaba flight from Memphis and would be greeted by Columbia Regional Airport’s open house celebration.
Here is the schedule of flights Mesaba Airlines is offering between Columbia Regional Airport and Memphis.
Columbia to Memphis:
Flight 3174 (except Sundays): Departs at 6 a.m., arrives at 7:44 a.m.
Flight 3170: Departs at 11:25 a.m., arrives at 1:09 p.m.
Flight 3173: Departs at 4:25 p.m., arrives at 6:09 p.m.
Memphis to Columbia:
Flight 3175: Departs at 9:25 a.m., arrives at 11:05 a.m.
Flight 3172: Departs at 2:25 p.m., arrives at 4:05 p.m.
Flight 3171 (except Saturdays): Departs at 7:40 p.m., arrives at 9:20 p.m.
“I walked in, and there were all these reporters,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Tuesday marked the beginning of commercial air service from Columbia Regional Airport to Memphis. It’s a milestone that many hope will bring an end to years of frustration over lackluster air service at the airport, which has seen declining passenger numbers as previous airlines struggled to foster interest in flights to Kansas City and St. Louis. And while an air of optimism surrounds Mesaba, experts say pricing and marketing will be key to its success.
Flights to and from Memphis will be provided three times a day by Mesaba Airlines, a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines that won a federal contract to provide essential air service at Columbia Regional. The agreement calls for a federal subsidy of $2.2 million per year.
The day was a cause for celebration for about 100 guests who crowded into the baggage claim area and listened to several speakers talk about the benefits of a Memphis connection from the airport. The festivities included a ribbon cutting, and Mojo Roots provided background blues music while guests enjoyed a barbecue spread prepared by Skyline Cafe.
“The world is at our doorstep now,” City Manager Bill Watkins said.
While Mayor Darwin Hindman was speaking, the audience chuckled as the flight from Memphis landed ahead of schedule. Four passengers disembarked from the inaugural flight.
The prevailing theme of the comments at the open house was that the airport will succeed only if there is a regional push to support it. Efforts already are under way to market the flights in Jefferson City, Fulton and the Lake of the Ozarks area.
One of the selling points of Mesaba was the improved connectivity passengers will get from flights to Memphis instead of the flights to St. Louis and Kansas City that were offered by previous commercial airlines at Columbia Regional. Memphis is home to an international airport and provides non-stop connections to 91 cities, including Los Angeles, Miami and Amsterdam. If a proposed merger between Northwest and Delta airlines goes through, there is the potential for even more connections, Northwest spokeswoman Kristin Baur said.
Airport Manager Kathy Frerking said she’ll deem the Mesaba services successful if they can eventually wean the airport off essential air service subsidies.
Columbia travel agents said Mesaba is poised to do better than its predecessor, Air Midwest, if several factors work out in its favor.
Paula Thomas, a travel consultant at Great Southern Tiger Travel, said that though flying from Columbia is a time saver compared to driving to Kansas City or St. Louis, travelers are leery of change. Many already have accumulated frequent flyer benefits through other airlines. Northwest will try to match those perks, but first people will need to make the switch.
Jerry Price, owner of Summit Travel, said travelers’ main concerns when booking flights are convenience, cost, reliability and connectivity. He thinks Mesaba has addressed those issues and said it’s a good idea to fly from Columbia when traveling to the eastern United States or Europe. Travelers will benefit from this service if they view Memphis as a connecting place rather than a final destination, he said.
Mesaba ticket prices vary daily and according to the passenger’s ultimate destination. A person who wants to buy a roundtrip ticket today to Memphis for next week would pay $317.50. But if they use Memphis as a connector, they can get roundtrip tickets to Miami for $188, to Los Angeles for $214, to Houston for $229.50 and to Amsterdam for $996.51.
Five passengers boarded the first flight from Columbia on Tuesday morning, and some intended to make connections to other cities at Memphis.
Dan King, who was flying to Little Rock, Ark., on business, said he chose to fly from Columbia because it was convenient. Charles Heaggans headed home for Charlotte, N.C., after completing business in the area. He said he had no idea that today was the first flight out and also chose the airport for convenience.
Don Miles, a member of the Airport Advisory Board, said that cost will ultimately determine whether Mesaba is a long-term success because it is not inconvenient to drive to Kansas City or St. Louis. If Northwest provides competitive prices, he said, he’ll choose to fly from Columbia.