COLUMBIA — Travel agents have highlighted the benefits of the newest travel option for mid-Missouri residents, including easier connections to the Southeastern Conference and the rest of the world.
Daily, nonstop midday flights to Atlanta from Columbia Regional Airport will begin June 7.
The partnership with Delta and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will potentially expand opportunities for those traveling internationally and will be good for travel to and from SEC events, Mayor Bob McDavid said.
"I think it's important to have a strong connection into SEC country," Greg Cecil of the Columbia Regional Airport Advisory Board said. "We need to make sure we're available to them as well."
Delta already provides three daily flights to and from Memphis International Airport at Columbia Regional Airport. The Memphis flights have proved popular since they began in August 2008.
The addition of the flights to Atlanta could help streamline air travel for passengers.
Beth Granger, a travel counselor at AAA Travel Agency, said being limited to the Memphis hub sometimes was a hassle.
"It was inconvenient before because we had to make multiple connections," Granger said.
With more flight options available, flying from Columbia could become a more pleasing option than driving to either St. Louis or Kansas City's airports.
"I think it's going to make the cost and travel time more attractive to people," Granger said. "Even if it's a little more expensive to fly out of Columbia, people will fly out of Columbia for convenience."
Paula Thomas, a travel consultant at Great Southern Tiger Travel, thinks customers will be happy about the Atlanta connection option.
"It gives us a direct international connection to Europe and South America, which we do a lot of," Thomas said.
Thomas cited differences between the Memphis and Atlanta airports.
"It will be a little bit more hectic than Memphis," Thomas said, "but I think it will be fine as long as travelers have enough connecting time."
McDavid announced the partnership with Delta and Hartsfield-Jackson at a news conference Friday morning. Flights to Atlanta will leave Columbia at 10:10 a.m. and return at 4:15 p.m.
According to Hartsfield-Jackson's website, Atlanta's airport is the busiest in the world, with more than 230 destinations in 53 countries.
MU Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services Jackie Jones said that expanded air service is important to the community and to MU. She cited the impact on enrollment and institutional research, in addition to the Tigers joining the SEC.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for the city, the university, the business community and all of the citizens of mid-Missouri," Jones said. "We need to step forward and support it, and Mizzou is going to be right there."
McDavid said the Atlanta flights are a first and major step toward what he calls the "40 in 2020" initiative.
"'40 in 2020' means that by the year 2020, Columbia Regional Airport will host 40 percent of all airline travel for mid-Missourians," McDavid said. "We want those 600 mid-Missourians who drive daily to St. Louis Lambert International Airport to instead fly out of Columbia Regional Airport. We want those 300 mid-Missourians who drive daily to Kansas City International Airport to instead fly out of Columbia Regional Airport."
Delta started the Memphis service under an Essential Air Service contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which provided a $2.2 million annual subsidy. That marked the first time passengers could fly commercial jets from Columbia to anywhere other than St. Louis or Kansas City.
When Delta renewed its contract in 2010, however, it announced it would no longer require the federal subsidy.
City Manager Mike Matthes said that further improvements need to be made to improve Columbia Regional Airport's infrastructure and that it is on target to spend $40 million during the next seven years.
"Airports do go away if you don't pay attention to them," Matthes said.