Early-morning and late-evening flights out of Columbia Regional Airport could continue beyond Nov. 1 if the Columbia City Council agrees tonight to help Trans-States Airlines cover the costs.
Trans-States, the airport’s only service provider and an American Connections affiliate, told the city earlier this summer that it would drop its number of daily round-trip flights out of Columbia from five to two. The reduction, it said, was necessary after American Airlines announced it would cut its St. Louis departures from 417 per day to 207.
Trans-States initially said it would provide only two mid-day flights out of Columbia after Nov. 1. Airport Manager Bill Boston, however, said it’s important that the city and the airline try to preserve early-morning departure and late-night return flights because they are important to business and other travelers. Losing those flights could cost the airport $15,000 to $20,000 per month and jeopardize the viability of commercial air service at the airport, according to a report to the city council.
City to consider subsidy proposal
The proposal under consideration tonight calls for the city to pay $13,500 over the 90 days following Nov. 1 — with a possible second 90-day subsidy at the same price — so that Trans-States could afford to have flight crews arrive late in Columbia, spend the night and fly out early. The subsidy would provide $150 per night to house three crew members.
The proposal would also reduce Trans-States’ rent on airport property by $3,116 over each subsidy period, Boston said.
The airline, pending approval of the financial incentive, has gone ahead and scheduled late-night arrivals and early-morning departures, as well as one mid-day round-trip flight, beyond Nov. 1.
The $27,000 for the subsidy would come from the unreserved fund balance at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. That fund, buoyed by higher tax revenue and the retirement of debt on the Walton Building, holds almost $200,000, Director Lorah Steiner of the bureau said.
Many passengers are business travelers
Airport statistics show that a total of 354 passengers arrived on late-night flights at Columbia Regional Airport in July and that 311 passengers left the airport on early-morning flights. Many of those are business travelers.
Leland Fischer, a bird-dog field trial judge from Jefferson City, was preparing to make a 6 a.m. business flight to Aberdeen, S.D., on Thursday. He and other passengers that morning said the early flights are important.
“I have to change flights four times, and it will be early evening before I get there,” Fischer said. “If I didn’t have an early flight, I wouldn’t get there until tomorrow at the earliest.”
Norm Ruebling, owner of the MO-X airport shuttle service that competes with Trans-States, said he doesn’t think public subsidies for private companies are appropriate.
“We’ve never asked for a subsidy, nor will we ever want one,” Ruebling said. “I don’t think any private enterprise should. I’d love to have the tax concessions of the airport and the airlines out there, but we would never ask.”
Mark Winter, vice president of the Tiger Air Express shuttle service, said he wasn’t aware of the proposal and didn’t comment.
Council members weigh in on issue
Although some council members have yet to decide whether to support the subsidies, Brian Ash of the Sixth Ward and Bob Hutton of the Third Ward said they’ll support the plan.
“I think it’s extremely important that the city maintains an airline. It’s critical to our community,” Hutton said. “We need to figure out the flights that are the most important. In my own experience, the early-morning and late-night flights are well populated.”
Ash said that while he generally doesn’t like subsidies, he can support this plan because it’s a short-term proposal that doesn’t involve a lot of money.
The council meets at 7 p.m. tonight in its chambers on the fourth-floor of the Daniel Boone Building, 701 E. Broadway. It is also scheduled to hold the second of three public hearings on the proposed budget for fiscal 2004.4