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.
Rachel Baechle had complimentary things to say about Northwest Airlink. She was returning to Columbia, Ohio, after two days visiting her parents who live just three miles from the airport.
“It’s very easy. They’re very organized the way they have it set up,” Baechle said. “It’s very convenient the way the connections fit.”
Before Northwest Airlink began its service, Baechle would fly into St. Louis or Kansas City, and her family would pick her up and bring her to Columbia. Now she flies directly to town.
“Oh, my gosh, there is no comparison,” Baechle said of the difference in her travel experience. “To have that direct connection right here, my family can pick me up in 15 minutes.”
José Cisneros, director of MU’s Global Agribusiness Program, also cited connectivity and convenience as his reasons for choosing to fly from Columbia Regional to reach his final destination of Miami.
“I just checked to see if it was a connecting flight, if there was not a wild combination, and that was really it,” Cisneros said. “The price was fair, and it just saved a lot of time.”
Dan Schapira of Columbia has been using Columbia Regional for years and has flown on several of its commercial airlines. His final destination on Wednesday was Raleigh, N.C.; he will compete in a golf tournament at the Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.C. later this week. He had his first experience with Northwest Airlink on Wednesday.
Schapira said he’s never had any travel problems at Columbia Regional, but he has encountered connectivity problems with previous airlines.
“The only problem I ever had was connecting from St. Louis to here. If we were a little bit late, we missed that flight. I had to take a taxi cab from St. Louis back here, that happened twice,” Schapira said, adding that the cab ride added $80 to the cost of those trips.
Columbia Public Works spokeswoman Jill Stedem said several factors contribute to Northwest Airlink’s success.
“We’ve been doing a lot of regional marketing, the fares are good and Mesaba has a high on-time reliability factor,” Stedem said. “Plus, they’re flying to a major hub.”
From Memphis, passengers can reach up to 90 destinations non-stop. By comparison, Kansas City or St. Louis “didn’t have as many connections as Memphis has available, especially non-stop connections,” Stedem said.
Stedem emphasized that passengers only needed to book one flight from Columbia Regional to their final destinations, rather than booking separate flights to Memphis and a second destination.
“We’re really trying to educate people on the fact that you book a ticket from Columbia to your destination, not Columbia to Memphis,” Stedem said.
The average add-on fare for the Columbia to Memphis portion of a flight is $95, with the final price of the ticket varying depending on the flight’s time and location. Many flights, such as the $145 round-trip from Columbia to Dallas, are quite reasonable, but some destinations remain expensive.
“If you’re going toward the West, it will be more expensive,” Stedem said. "If you’re going to Chicago, your destination will be pretty pricey.”
Earlier this week, the round-trip fare between Columbia and Chicago was $700. Fares vary, however, depending on time and destination, and Northwest Airlines continues to review its prices, Stedem said. Northwest Airlink is a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, according to a Missourian article from April 2008.
Meanwhile, city officials are gearing up for a regional marking campaign to generate even more interest in the Memphis service. A key feature will be the Web site FlyMidMo.com, which should launch in about two weeks. Features will include air fares from Columbia to anywhere in the country and a real-time arrival and departure tracker that people can use to check the locations of planes and possible delays.
The campaign also includes TV ads on KMIZ and KQFX , and those will be extended to KOMU in October. Radio ads will air in Columbia, Jefferson City and the Lake of the Ozarks area. Local newspaper ads also are featured in Columbia, and a billboard has been installed on the right-hand side of eastbound Interstate 70.
“We want to catch people as they’re going to the St. Louis airport,” said Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The aggressive marketing campaign differs starkly from the marketing done for Mesa Airlines, which did nothing to accommodate the city’s efforts.
“We made scores of phone calls to Mesa’s marketing office and never got a return phone call,” Steiner said. “We were very frustrated.”
In contrast, Mesaba and Northwest have provided a great deal of support. Northwest assigned a representative to the Columbia Regional market, and he remains in touch.
“His job is to try to make this successful,” Steiner said.
Although it’s early, the Northwest service thus far has been a success.
“We’ve been very pleased with the results to date, so we don’t want to sit back and rest on our laurels,” Steiner said. “We want to continue to keep a strong marketing and advertising effort, and our hope is to see results that are as strong or better.”