Mesa Air Group wants to eliminate all flights from Columbia Regional Airport to Lambert-St.Louis International Airport and instead provide four daily flights to Kansas City International Airport.
The proposed change comes as the number of passengers traveling through Columbia has gone down, which airport manager Kathy Frerking said is due to a “serious reliability problem” on the part of Mesa, which operates as U.S. Airways Express at the Columbia airport.
Departing COU for MCI:5:50 a.m. Monday - Saturday 10:45 a.m. Monday - Saturday 3:25 p.m. Sunday - Friday 5:30 p.m. Sunday - Friday
Departing MCI for COU:9:45 a.m. Monday - Saturday 2:25 p.m. Monday - Saturday 4:33 p.m. Sunday - Friday 9:45 p.m. Sunday - Friday
Over the past three months, about 20 percent of flights between the Columbia airport and St. Louis have been delayed, according to flightstats.com, an online service Frerking uses to track the airline’s performance.
About 28 percent of the flights scheduled to depart for Kansas City also left late, according to the Web site.
City Manager Bill Watkins lamented the situation in a report to the City Council. He said the problem lies more with the airline than with its schedule.
“On numerous occasions the flights are excessively delayed to the point that passengers are walking out of the terminal and driving or taking shuttle service to their connecting flights,” he wrote. “Not only is this a loss of revenue for the airline but a loss of enplanements for the airport.”
Concern about the declining number of travelers is high because the airport needs to record at least 10,000 enplanements this year in order to maintain $1 million in annual entitlement funding from the Federal Aviation Administration. Based on January and February passenger numbers, Frerking estimates Columbia airport will only see about 8,500 this year.
“I know we need a change in the schedule,” Frerking said. “I don’t know if this will solve the problem, but it’s an interesting proposal.”
Jeffrey Hartz, a spokesman for Mesa Air Group, said the group wants to concentrate the flights in Kansas City because it is an operations hub.
“Four connecting opportunities should really be a lot easier,” he said. “Diluting the schedule doesn’t enable the consumer to have as many connecting opportunities as if you had those connections in one hub.”
Hartz said the group has been talking with Frerking over the past couple of months in an effort to find a resolution to what both referred to as widespread passenger dissatisfaction with the lack of ability to get to connecting flights in either Kansas City or St. Louis.
The proposed change comes less than six months after U.S. Airways Express began flying from the Columbia airport under an essential air service contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The federal government subsidizes Mesa to the tune of $598,751 per year to provide the flights, which began Oct. 5.
Because the new proposal represents a change in the airline’s two-year contract, the proposed changes must first go through the City Council. The change would also have to be approved by the Department of Transportation.
“It’s a significant change over what the existing contract says,” Watkins said. “We’re not real excited about it.”
Watkins recommended the City Council review the issue at its Monday meeting, then have a public hearing on April 16.
Hartz hopes the city will approve the change in the next week or two so Mesa can change its schedule on June 3.
“I don’t think that will happen,” Watkins said.
Greg Cecil, a member of the Airport Advisory Board, said he thinks four daily flights to Kansas City would be “a good thing.” Cecil, who is also affiliated with the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Aviation Committee, said the Kansas City airport is growing faster than the St. Louis airport, and he thinks it would be better to have four flights going to the same airport in order to make flight connections easier.
“If you’re not there when the majority of flights are leaving,” Cecil said, “then it doesn’t do you any good.”
Mesa said in its request to the council that four daily flights to Kansas City would allow passengers to remain on the same airline and make connecting flights to a variety of destinations, including Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Tampa, Fla. Chicago and Dallas, two destinations in which Columbia residents have frequently expressed an interest, were not on that list.