American Airlines flights to Dallas, Chicago fuller than expected

Thursday, March 14, 2013 | 6:32 p.m. CDT; updated 9:06 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 14, 2013

COLUMBIA — One month into American Airlines' new flights to Dallas and Chicago, passenger numbers on those trips have exceeded both city and airline expectations, a Columbia Regional Airport official said Thursday. 

Airport manager Don Elliot said those planes, which can hold 50 passengers, have been consistently around 87 percent full. 

Delta Airlines' flights to Atlanta, which ended last month, peaked at around 85 percent capacity, but often carried fewer passengers, Elliot said.

On the new American flights, "that's the equivalent of 1,557 passengers on 36 flights," Elliot said. "It is unheard of when you get to 90 percent and it just goes to show there is a demand for air travel in Mid-Missouri. Obviously, I would like to see it in the mid-90s, but I am happy with these numbers so far and so is American."

American hoped to break into the market with 50 percent capacity, but eventually hoped to achieve 70 or 80 percent capacity, Elliot said. 

Meanwhile, city officials are preparing for the airport tower's closure because of federal budget cuts. The Federal Aviation Administration will finalize the list of airport tower closures on March 18, and airports will be notified on March 20. The Columbia and Jefferson City airports were on a preliminary closure list released Feb. 22.

Ron Craft, Jefferson City Memorial Airport manager, said that airport has received an FAA letter that said its tower was slated for closure on Sept. 30.

In Columbia, Elliot said he hasn't received notice of a closure date.

Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, said he cannot comment on whether the airlines' Columbia flights could continue if that tower closes. 

Elliot said concerns about the ability of commercial aircraft to land without the tower were unfounded.

"Our tower is only open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and there are planes arriving and departing from the airport outside of those times," Elliot said. "We are confident that airport personnel would still be able to have a normal operation. The pilots are all trained in the procedure of how to land  at an unmanned airport field."

But Elliot said he will continue to advocate for keeping the tower open because of the extra peace of mind it provides.

"I am always concerned about the safety of our airport and the passengers," Elliot said. "Having the airport tower personnel here provides an additional layer of safety. The primary issue is risk management."

Airport officials are also pursuing a new air service provider to replace Frontier Airlines, which announced they would cease flights to Orlando on May 13.

Elliot said officials are currently in discussions with several air service providers.

"These are ongoing discussions," Elliot said. "Nothing out of the ordinary, just business as usual."

Elliot declined to specify which airlines the city is negotiating with.

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