Columbia city council to vote on proposed airport expansion

Sunday, October 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:16 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 20, 2009
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COLUMBIA — A plan outlining major projects and improvements for Columbia Regional Airport will go before the Columbia City Council on Monday evening. The Airport Master Plan proposes $64 million worth of projects over the next 20 years and comes during the airport's busiest year in recent memory.

The plan calls for major runway reconstruction, runway extension, the purchase of land adjacent to the airport and improvements to the main terminal and facilities.

The master plan says the airport’s highest priority is the reconstruction and extension of the crosswind runway, which is used by smaller planes when prevailing winds blow perpendicular to the main runway.

According to the master plan, the entire asphalt runway is in "poor" condition and requires complete reconstruction. The plan also calls for extending the southeast end of the crosswind runway by 5,000 feet to meet line-of-sight requirements.

After work on the crosswind runway is done, the main runway also would be extended to accommodate larger aircraft. Although the main runway would be closed during the extension work, the plan says that neither commercial nor general aviation service would be interrupted.

Airport Manager Kathy Frerking said the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, provides entitlement money for airport projects, but that money is contingent on the existence of a master plan.

"With the master plan in place we hope to start all of this in the next three to five years," Frerking said.

If the plan is adopted by the City Council, the airport can begin applying for money to pay for runway work.

The master plan estimates the total cost for runway improvements to be a little less than $40 million. Of that amount, the FAA is estimated to provide around $34 million, the Missouri Department of Transportation $3.4 million and the City of Columbia around $2.2 million.

In addition to runway improvements, the plan calls for the eventual expansion of parking lots, the construction of a new emergency services building, hangar expansion and improvements to terminal facilities. The runway improvements, however, are listed as the highest priority.

This year has been the airport’s busiest for commercial air travel in recent history, with more than 18,000 departing commercial air passengers through September. That puts the airport on pace to pass 24,000 passengers by the end of the year, which would make it the busiest year since 2002.

"We're thrilled," Frerking said, adding that Mesaba Air’s connection to Memphis has made all the difference. "Having connections to a hub is very beneficial."

Mesaba, now operated by Delta, began service in August 2008 and provides 20 round-trip flights a week between Columbia and Memphis. Mesaba replaced Air Midwest as the airport's only commercial carrier, which discontinued service to Columbia in June 2008.

John Riddick is a private pilot and has served on the Airport Advisory Board for the past year. He agreed that Memphis has been a good destination for Columbia service.

"I think the concept of flying to Kansas City or St. Louis wasn't a good business choice," Riddick said, adding that Air Midwest’s delays and inconsistencies in service negated the convenience of flying out of Columbia.

Frerking said Mesaba has also been more dependable than Air Midwest.

"Reliability is key,” Frerking said. “We knew that all along, but this is proving it."

In 2007 Air Midwest scaled back service and logged fewer than 10,000 departing passengers, which put the airport in danger of losing its essential air service designation and the accompanying federal subsidy of about $1 million per year. The subsidy is used for airport operations and improvements.

Mesaba provides service under a two-year essential air service contract. The contract ensures that in addition to passenger fares, the carrier receives a U.S. Department of Transportation subsidy of $1,083 per flight. At 20 round-trip flights a week, the subsidy comes to more than $2 million per year. Frerking said flights on Mesaba’s Columbia-Memphis route have averaged around 75 percent of capacity.

It appears that what's good for the airline is also good for passengers in mid-Missouri.

MU sophomore Megan May was waiting for a flight Friday afternoon. She was on her way home to Milwaukee and said that the convenience of flying out of Columbia rather than Kansas City or St. Louis outweighed the additional cost.

"I just got out of class so I wouldn't be able to get home until late. This way I also get back in time for class on Monday," May said.

Drew Leslie agreed. He teaches at MU’s School of Music and was waiting for the same flight Friday afternoon on his way to Austin, Texas. He said convenience is worth the added cost. "For me it's a convenience thing. If it's convenient, I'd rather pay a little bit more. Plus, there's free parking."

As for the facilities, he said Columbia Regional Airport leaves some things to be desired.

"It would be nice if there was a newsstand or a restaurant,” he said. “There is a restaurant, but it closes at like 2:30.”

Frerking said that she would like to see another carrier come in and expand service to other cities such as Chicago or Dallas, but rising fuel costs and a troubled economy make that difficult.

"It's getting harder and harder for airports to attract service because carriers are putting that business where they know they can get the larger numbers," she said.

Still, she hopes improvements to the airport will help expand service.

The airport master plan proposes $64 million in improvements over the next 20 years but is intended to be a working document. It's unlikely that all of the projects in the plan would be carried out in the next 20 years. The master plan is intended to provide guidance and detailed analysis for projects that might ultimately require federal funding.

The FAA suggests airports produce an updated master plan every seven to 10 years.

Of $64 million in total proposed projects, the plan estimates the city would be responsible for $16 million. Grants from the FAA would provide $41.4 million and grants from the Missouri Department of Transportation $6.3 million.

The council will hear public testimony on the final draft of the airport master plan Monday night before voting on whether to adopt the document.

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