COLUMBIA — Still-visible morning stars and lights of red, blue and green punctuate the navy skyline at Columbia Regional Airport, turning the airway into an industrial version of Lite-Brite.
It’s 6:02 a.m. Wednesday, and the right propeller of Northwest Airlink’s Saab 340 begins to whirl. Just a few minutes later, the first flight of the day between Columbia and Memphis begins to roll down the runway, carrying 25 passengers.
Since Mesaba Airlines began operating as Northwest Airlink out of Columbia Regional Airport on Aug. 19, the number of passengers using the service has exceeded expectations. City and airport officials have, thus far, been thrilled with Northwest’s performance. They say it’s the combination of connectivity at Memphis, reasonable ticket prices, convenience and a regional marketing campaign that are making the flights so successful. Passengers, for the most part, seem to agree.
Between Sept. 1 and Wednesday, 1,168 passengers boarded flights between Columbia and Memphis. That’s an average of 17 passengers per flight and three flights per day, on track to more than triple the passenger numbers of Northwest’s predecessor, Mesa Air, which averaged 497 passengers per month on flights to Kansas City during its last half year in operation.
Passenger numbers are also exceeding Mesaba’s expectations; when it submitted its bid for a $2.2 million Essential Air Service subsidy from the U.S. Department of Transportation it projected a passenger load of 42 percent. During the week of Sept. 13 through Sept. 19, though, its passenger load was 59 percent.
Daily numbers are also impressive: 79 people flew out of Columbia and 77 into the city on Wednesday, for example.
Passengers on the 6 a.m. flight were traveling both for work and pleasure. At 5:30 a.m., the waiting area’s atmosphere was decidedly un-airport — people were perhaps a bit sleepy, but didn’t appear rushed or stressed.
Memphis flights exceed expectations
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