City discussed flights to Las Vegas, Orlando with Allegiant Air

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | 6:33 p.m. CST; updated 6:49 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 11, 2012

COLUMBIA — City officials have talked with Allegiant Air about adding flights between Columbia Regional Airport and Orlando and Las Vegas, according to sources privy to the discussions.

Emails sent among city officials, which the Missourian obtained through a Sunshine Law request for public records, suggest Allegiant came close to adding the flights. "Allegiant Air is holding off on their announcement," airport manager Don Elliott wrote to City Manager Mike Matthes in an Aug. 27 email.

View the records

See this previous Missourian story to view all the materials the Missourian received in response to its request for records regarding city officials' talks with various airlines.

In addition to being concerned about fuel costs, the airline was "caught off guard with Frontier's announcement," Elliott wrote. On Aug. 16, Mayor Bob McDavid announced Frontier Airlines would add flights between Columbia and Orlando.

Elliott said Allegiant was still considering adding flights to Columbia, however. "They indicated they may be back in the spring with a different route," he wrote in the Aug. 27 email.

McDavid said in a phone interview Tuesday there are no ongoing talks between the city and Allegiant.

"I wouldn't describe it as active," he said. He added, however, that Allegiant is "always looking for opportunities."

Ron McNeill, a consultant at Mead & Hunt who participated in the discussions, was confident Allegiant would consider Columbia again.

"In my mind, Allegiant is definitely still interested in Columbia," he said.

McDavid said Allegiant follows a "resort model" of air service similar to that used by Frontier, where one plane flies between many mid-size airports and vacation destinations in the course of a day. That model would not allow passengers to transfer their luggage between flights, he said.

"It's an interesting model, but it doesn't give you the connectivity you want to happen," McDavid said. "The priority is to get air service for major hubs."

City officials approached Allegiant at least a few years ago, McNeill said, hoping for flights to Orlando or Las Vegas. Those cities were not high priorities, however.

"It was not as high a priority as service to a major hub for business travelers," he said. "This is not for the business community."

Revenue guarantees have not been part of the discussions with Allegiant. The city used guarantees to entice American Airlines to offer flights between Columbia and Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth. It also considered revenue guarantees for United Airlines flights to Chicago and offered guarantees to Delta Air Lines to continue service to Atlanta. Neither the United nor the Delta arrangements worked out, however.

"Allegiant service to Las Vegas is primarily a leisure opportunity," McNeill said.

Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl said Columbia City Council members were more interested in a flight to Orlando than one to Las Vegas. Allegiant, however, thought a flight to Las Vegas would be profitable.

"I understood they ran the numbers and determined they could make money from one flight a day into Vegas," he said.

Kespohl said he knew about the discussions with Allegiant from conversations with McDavid. "We want to do the best for Columbia we can on the airport, so we talk about it a lot," he said.

On its website, Allegiant brands itself as a leisure airline with "low-low fares." It specializes in flights between mid-size cities and tourist destinations. For example, it connects Springfield-Branson National Airport with McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Los Angeles International Airport, Orlando Sanford International Airport, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

On Aug. 20, Eric Fletcher, a manager at Allegiant, emailed Matthes a PowerPoint presentation that said the airline's concentration on leisure flights made it more resilient than business airlines. A series of slides, titled "Allegiant effect," showed statistics from airports in Oregon, Montana, Kentucky and Maine that had seen increases in passenger traffic and reduction of fares after adding Allegiant flights.

Kespohl said his wife's cousin often takes a one-way Allegiant flight from Mesa, Ariz., to Springfield for $59. He and his wife drive to the airport to pick her up.

"She enjoys the price of the flight," Kespohl said. "It's an economy airline. It's like Southwest — no frills, just keep prices low. That's what Allegiant does."

Records regarding the Allegiant talks were among 160 emails the Missourian obtained through a public records request for correspondence among city officials and representatives of various airlines regarding talks about service at Columbia Regional Airport.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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