COLUMBIA — Frontier Airlines will offer twice-weekly flights between Columbia Regional Airport and Orlando International Airport beginning Nov. 20, Mayor Bob McDavid said at a news conference Thursday.
Frontier will use a 138-seat Airbus 319 plane for the flights, which will go to and from Columbia and Orlando on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Orlando International Airport was the 13th busiest airport in the United States and 26th in the world in 2011, according to flightstats.com. The airport is 123 miles from the University of Florida, a fellow Southeastern Conference school, in Gainesville, Fla.
Although McDavid was upbeat about the additional flights, he also sounded a warning, saying that the Columbia airport's terminal lacks the waiting area capacity to handle the extra passengers.
"This is a crisis," he said. "It is very important to move very quick to build a new terminal."
The cost of a new terminal would be in the $15 million range, but the real cost will not be known until a design is complete, McDavid said. A rendering made in January by the architectural firm Reynolds, Smith & Hills showed a terminal renovation that would cost an estimated $17.1 million.
The mayor said the city probably would need to sell bonds to finance a new terminal, but paying off those bonds would require about $1.4 million per year in additional revenue.
City officials over the past year have discussed whether to raise Columbia's tax on hotel and motel rooms as a way to pay for the project. McDavid said Thursday that a sales tax increase might also be an option. Either would be subject to voter approval.
"The citizens of Columbia will determine how that's funded," he said.
The mayor said he would ask City Manager Mike Matthes to come up with a plan for using council contingency funds to finance a short-term fix for the lack of waiting room at the terminal.
"We don't want to be known as the SEC school that has black-and-gold double wides welcoming you to Columbia," McDavid said. He also noted that the terminal building does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"It was a great terminal in 1969. But it's not 1969," McDavid said.
Flights will depart Columbia Regional Airport for Orlando at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and at 10:25 a.m. on Saturdays, McDavid said. Flights to Columbia will leave Orlando at 1:50 p.m. Tuesdays and at 8 a.m. Saturdays.
Frontier said in a news release that it will offer introductory fares as low as $79 through Aug. 25 but that some conditions apply.
Along with new flights to Atlanta announced in March, the flights to Orlando bring the airport closer to reaching the mayor's "40 in 2020 initiative," which called for Columbia Regional Airport to host 40 percent of airline travel for mid-Missourians within eight years.
Because planes coming into Columbia are smaller than those flying into Kansas City and St. Louis, their fuel costs per passenger are higher, McDavid said. However, the convenience of Columbia Regional Airport for mid-Missourians will allow it to compete, he said.
McDavid said he hopes Columbia's relationship with Frontier will evolve. He brought up the possibility of adding flights to Denver International Airport, which is Frontier's primary hub and a popular travel destination for mid-Missourians.
"I'm hoping we have more announcements like this in the near future," McDavid said.
Frontier Airlines spokeswoman Lindsey Carpenter said Columbia was identified as a low-access market that would benefit from our service to Orlando. The Columbia route comes as Frontier continues to expand and is the 12th nonstop route into Orlando.
Carpenter said the success of the Orlando route will not necessarily translate into additional Frontier destinations from Columbia. "We will analyze the market and see. The success of one route does not mean another will be economically viable."
Columbia travel agents expressed excitement about the Orlando flights. Jerry Price at Suzi Davis Travel in Columbia said Orlando is very popular.
"Orlando opens a gateway," he said. "Since you have nonstop service from here to Orlando, you can connect to almost any major city in Florida, so having that service is great."
Price said the vast majority of Columbians who travel to Orlando are visiting theme parks. Orlando is home to Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Studios Florida and other attractions. Price said he has yet to hear any new interest in travel to central Florida related to MU's membership in the SEC.
Mary Kroening of Great Southern Travel said most mid-Missourians traveling to Orlando use the St. Louis or Kansas City airports. The Columbia route will be a good option, she said. "It's great to see Columbia Regional Airport growing."
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