GEORGE KENNEDY: Columbia airport can handle traffic without adding more debt

Friday, May 31, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:12 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 31, 2013

Missourian readers, I know, take a back seat to no one when it comes to concern for the welfare of our metropolis. That concern certainly extends the 10 miles or so south to the airport.

Columbia Regional Airport — or, as I like to call it, Englewood International — has been in the news since the Columbia Daily Tribune reported last week that the New York consultants have come up with a design for a new terminal.

HJWIII opined in Sunday's Trib that we should take a leap of faith (that's a close paraphrase) and sign on to what the consultants guesstimate would be at least a $33.7 million project.

I learned long ago to be wary of disagreeing with my elders, but this time I'm going to have to do just that.

Let's have a show of hands by those who have flown out of or into Englewood International recently. Anyone? Anyone? Me neither.

Still, like many of you, I have fond memories of the good old days. Remember Ozark Airlines? How about TWA?

Probably my favorite memory is of the evening I returned from a trip and was met by my lovely and thoughtful wife, accompanied by the kids and some friends. She handed me the keys to a spanking new Chevy pickup. That truck outlasted the airline of the day by far.

In search of a fresh impression, on Wednesday morning I drove south on U.S. 63, crossed Turkey Creek, navigated the two new roundabouts on the overpass at Route H and pulled into the free parking lot that is one of the airport's most attractive features.

When I walked into the terminal at 10:30, I didn't see another human being. No waiting passengers, no American Airlines agents, no TSA inspectors, not even anybody behind the rental car counters.

And why should anyone be there? The early flight to Dallas was long gone, and the mid-afternoon run to Chicago was hours away.

I climbed the stairs to the Skyline Cafe (serving a full menu from 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday) and chatted with the first person I'd seen, a pleasant lady who said business is pretty good, though of course she had no customers at the moment. Together we watched the crew that's busy repairing and expanding the taxiway.

Back on the main floor, I passed the empty desk that until recently served Frontier's flights to Orlando, of all places. There's still a small sign advertising Frontier, but the airline itself has flown away.

I take you along on my visit to make a point. It seems to me that the modest terminal we now have, one that's paid for, is more than adequate to serve the single airline and its three flights a day, comfortably full though they be.

Should we have the good fortune to persuade or bribe another carrier to come in, or should American add a second Chicago flight, there'll still be more than enough room.

It was telling, I thought, that Mayor Bob McDavid, who has publicly proclaimed a goal of luring 40 percent of Columbia travelers to the airport by 2020, described the consultants' proposal to the Tribune as "interesting" and "creative."

The descriptor that came immediately to my mind was "fantasy." The mayor's top priority, he said, is to keep working on the relationship with American.

In Hank's editorial, he conceded that for most of us, flying from our airport remains too expensive or too inconvenient. Nonetheless, his faith-based conclusion was, "Let's build it. They already are coming."

I prefer a fact-based version of that famous line from "Field of Dreams." Let's see if they come before we build it. The field of dreams wasn't going to cost $33 million.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Bill Weitkemper May 31, 2013 | 8:46 a.m.

It's about time more people questioned this project.

The airport terminal should be made fully-accessible so all visitors to the airport can enjoy the Skyline Cafe. However, that can be done for a fraction of the estimated $33.7 million that a new terminal is estimated to cost.

It's also a bit premature to be thinking about constructing an 800 space parking structure next to the 33.7 million dollar terminal.

For a project that didn't even generate enough interest for the city's Airport Advisory Board to have the required quorum present to vote on making a recommendation to the City Council perhaps there is a better use for 33.7 million dollars.

The city should explore creating a regional airport authority comprised of the University of Missouri and other communities and businesses that use the airport.

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp was correct when he said the city should put some thought into how a new terminal could be used if (when) air service providers stop coming to Columbia. If we have to repurpose it, what would it be?

The possibilities are certainly limited.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 31, 2013 | 10:06 a.m.

The airport is going nowhere until the area surrounding it is populated by businesses that need it.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 31, 2013 | 1:06 p.m.

It's the Second Coming, people: Kennedy and Smith agree about something. Well of course: the topic only indirectly has to do with University of Missouri (that is, only as relates to potential airline passengers).

Before spending, or contemplating spending, more money on Columbia Regional Airport I recommend officials and perhaps also some folks from MU as well drive to or charter a flight to Eastern Iowa Regional Airport and have a chat with those responsible for its successful operation. The airport is located just west of Exit 13 on I-380, between Cedar Rapids (~126,300) and Iowa City (~67,800). Aside from lesser businesses, Cedar Rapids is home to Quaker Foods and Rockwell Collins (electronics, avionics); Iowa City is home to University of Iowa and American College Testing (the notorious ACT test). University of Iowa has a smaller enrollment than MU (Iowa has only three public universities, University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa, which in total do have a large student population), but while the combined population of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City is greater than the combined populations of Columbia and Jefferson City, taking all situations into account the two regions have definite similarities.

Unlike Jefferson City, neither of the two Iowa cities is the state capital. That's Des Moines, with two significant airports: International (somewhat of a misnomer), for all commercial passenger traffic, and Regional, about 20 miles north in Ankeny, confined to general aviation, executive aviation, and air charter services.

The driving distance between Eastern Iowa Regional and Des Moines International is about the same as from Columbia to Lambert Field, St. Louis (and can be done almost entirely using Interstate highways).

Talk with those folks (Eastern Iowa Regional); hear about their successes and their problems. What might you learn, and how much would it really cost to do so? NO, everything has to be done as if your regional airport, mid-Missouri, and for thar matter MU exist in a total vacuum. :-(

It appears to some of us that's also how MU goes about solving its problems: 50% by often expensive outside consultants and the remaining 50% by navel contemplation. :)

(Report Comment)
Theodore Choma May 31, 2013 | 6:22 p.m.

spoken like guys who have no vision of a future Columbia that might be different from the past. Sad. If the business community and the city leaders have no greater vision than you all, Columbia will never be more than it is now, and some day we will wonder who moved our cheese.

(Report Comment)

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