COLUMBIA — The Embraer Regional Jet glistened in the midday sun Thursday on the Columbia Regional Airport tarmac, ready for the inaugural American Airlines flight from Columbia to Chicago.
Inside the airport, several staff members huddled around computers at the American Airlines ticket counter. They worked to make the ticketing and check-in process as quick as possible for the dozens of people waiting in the airport's lobby.
Dale Jenkins, 54, appreciated their extra effort. The Tuscumbia native was headed to Virginia Beach, after a layover in Chicago, to see his granddaughter.
"Check-in was great," Jenkins said. "They have definitely impressed me so far. I am excited to see what American can do for this airport."
In the fall, Delta Air Lines decided to discontinue air service to and from Columbia after the city offered a two-year, $3 million revenue guarantee to American Airlines to provide flights to and from Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth.
American Airlines agreed to merge with U.S. Airways on Thursday, which would create the world's largest carrier, according to the Associated Press.
Moberly resident Louise Bott, 65, another passenger bound for Chicago, was using Columbia's airport for the first time. She said she felt right at home with Columbia's airport and the American Airlines staff.
"I really don't like big airports," Bott said. "I have always flown out of St. Louis, but once American announced they were coming here, I knew I would come here instead. I really like American Airlines."
Passengers such as Jenkins and Bott are a focus for American Airlines, said representative Brett Hooyerink, senior manager for American Airlines market development.
"We recognized the great need to expand the air service here in Columbia and we are very excited to provide that service," Hooyerink said. "We are very pleased with the response from the community. Our pre-ticket sales have surpassed our expectations. We have full flights for the next week or so, and the numbers look good for months ahead."
Members of the Ravipudi family, who are headed to Los Angeles via Chicago, said they will be repeat customers of American Airlines and the Columbia airport.
"We have already booked a flight for next month," Sanjeev Ravipudi, 41, said. His mother, Meena Nuper, said she has even booked one for November. Ravipudi said he was pleased with the increased options at the airport.
"With American we are not losing access," Ravipudi said. "We are actually gaining access to the entire world. I would encourage everyone else to come and support American Airlines out of Columbia Regional Airport."
A couple of incoming passengers on the Dallas-Fort Worth early afternoon flight, Dan Rand and Warren Vaughn, said this was their first time flying into Columbia. They were impressed.
"I will definitely use it more as I travel so much for my work," Rand, an employee of Texas A&M University, said. "Everything went so smoothly, from the runway to service on the plane. The flight attendant, Roger, was simply terrific."
Another passenger who came in from Dallas-Fort Worth, 54-year-old Bob McCann, is visiting family in mid-Missouri and said the convenience of flying into Columbia can't be beat.
"For my first time flying into Columbia, it was great," McCann said. McCann said he can see why so many different types of people would use the Columbia airport now with American Airlines providing service.
"We had plenty of people on the plane," he said. "It was pretty full. There were even four or five guys who were all headed up here to see their girlfriends on Valentine's Day."
Following the first arrival, the American Airlines staff turned their attention to the inaugural departure from the Columbia airport. The debut had been near perfect until the departure plane filled with passengers sat on the tarmac for thirty minutes. Originally scheduled for a 1:55 p.m. departure, the plane didn't take off until around 2:30 p.m.
Joy Warner, a general manager for American Airlines, attributed the delay to human nerves and to the staff's unfamiliarity with the airport's computer system.
"Whenever you open a new station, there are going to be hiccups," Warner said. "This should be our only delay today. Everything else is ready to go for our later arrival and departure today."
Mayors Bob McDavid and Eric Struemph, of Columbia and Jefferson City, respectively, joined Boone and Cole County commissioners to speak at a ribbon cutting ceremony at about 4 p.m. in the airport lobby.
“We here in mid-Missouri now have one-stop access to virtually anywhere in the world,” McDavid said.
During the ceremony, the first return flight from Chicago arrived.
Dawn Eckenrode, a Columbia resident who was on the flight, said she loved using the airport.
“The people are friendly and the proximity is nice,” said Eckenrode. “We don’t have to drive long-distance and the parking is free.”
Steven Sapp. spokesman for the Columbia Public Works Department, focused on the positives of Thursday's inaugural flights.
"American Airlines is the perfect combination of business airfare and pleasure airfare," Sapp said. "No matter where you want to go, you can go there now. Hopefully, everyone will start and end their trips here at the airport."