Airport use grows 99 percent since Mesaba's arrival

Saturday, January 3, 2009 | 9:03 p.m. CST; updated 9:51 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 3, 2009

COLUMBIA — Bob Eckle, who works in marketing, has been using the Columbia Regional Airport for about a month. A frequent flier who travels at least three times a month for his job, Eckle used to fly out of St. Louis or Kansas City because it required fewer layovers than flying from Columbia. Now he catches flights out of Columbia because he can connect to his destinations via Memphis.

Eckle said he likes using Columbia’s airport for most of his flights now because it is closer to home and takes him where he needs to go with only one layover.

“I think the connections are good, when you consider driving two hours to St. Louis,” Eckle said. “The concept they are doing here is well thought out and gives people out of Columbia the advantages of people in big cities.”

Since Mesaba began offering service in August, there has been a 98.69 percent increase in the number of passengers boarding than when Air Midwest was the carrier from January to June.

Mesaba, which was created in 1944 and became a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines in 2007, began serving Columbia on Aug. 19. It offers three daily flights to Memphis, with seats for 32 people on each flight, except for Sundays, when there are two flights. On Monday, this will change, as there will be three outgoing flights Sunday through Friday and two on Saturday.

Columbia was named in Mesaba’s list of top five airports, out of 56 comparable airports. The list was based on number of passengers, percentage of seats filled and amount of delays and cancellations.

The other airports in the top five included Toledo, Ohio; Mosinee, Wis.; Marquette, Mich.; and Aberdeen, S.D. Columbia had the highest load factor, with 70 percent of its seats filled on average, but it didn’t have the largest number of overall passengers.

Greg Cecil, the chairman of the Airport Advisory Board, said more people are flying out of Columbia for a variety of reasons: Planes are flying to a major hub, Columbia is a closer drive than St. Louis or Kansas City for people in different parts of mid-Missouri, and flights cost either the same or less than those out of other airports. He said based on these three factors, many people, including himself, have chosen to fly out of Columbia.

Other airlines, such as Air Midwest, weren’t successful in Columbia because they didn’t have enough planes, Cecil said. Weather also played a part because there were a number of delays and cancellations at the airport. Planes were flying out of places in Illinois such as Chicago to come to Columbia, and snow and other bad weather caused cancellations and delays.

Since Mesaba became the airport’s carrier, there has been a 98.4 percent completion factor, meaning there have been almost no cancellations at the airport. Columbia Public Works Department spokeswoman Jill Stedem said in November and December there was only one cancellation and one delay because of high winds and equipment maintenance, respectively.

“If there are delays, people don’t want to fly out of Columbia,” Cecil said.

When he flew to San Francisco, Cecil chose to fly out of Columbia rather than a larger airport because of the cost of the flight, which he said was about $20 cheaper than flying out of St. Louis, and because of his close proximity to the airport. He said the experience was positive because he had a shorter drive after flying.

“I didn’t have a two-hour drive to come home," Cecil said. "I didn’t have to wait for my luggage for more than five minutes.”

When the airport board decided which airline to recommend to the City Council, one major consideration was where flights would go. A number of people in central Missouri go to Orlando or Las Vegas for conferences and business trips, Cecil said, so the board took into account how many layovers it would take to arrive at these destinations.

There has been an increase in use by companies, MU and other large institutions as well as by individual passengers, Stedem said. The Public Works Department hopes to increase use by people from other parts of mid-Missouri, she said. On Monday the City Council will discuss a potential $81,000 grant from the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission for airport advertising efforts. The city would have to contribute an additional $9,000.

Cecil said the airport board's goal is to have 30,000 people a year flying in and out of Columbia by the end of 2009. That was the number of people who were using the airport before Sept. 11, 2001, when Ozarks Air Lines and Trans States Airlines were its carriers, he said. He said if the airport reaches this level of service, other airlines would take notice. He thinks that with the surrounding counties that are closer to Columbia than St. Louis or Kansas City, the airport could exceed 30,000.

“I think there are enough people living in the central Missouri area that we could get 50,000 people flying out of Columbia,” Cecil said.

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