Airport’s future up in the air

The annual number of passengers flying out of Columbia Regional Airport has shrunk by more than half in the last decade, from more than 40,000 to less than 20,000. Questions about the future include whether low numbers would cause the airport to lose all commercial traffic and $1 million in annual federal funding.
Friday, April 29, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:33 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Don’t call Columbia Regional Airport to ask when it’s closing down. Airport Superintendent Bill Boston is getting a bit tired of handling those calls.

But you can’t blame people for being concerned. The number of passengers flying through the airport annually has declined from 41,000 in 1994 to 18,000 in 2004. That statistic is alarming even for airport administrators, who face increasing competition from shuttle services such as MO-X and blame potential passengers’ misperceptions about service at Columbia Regional.

“It’s a trend we don’t like to see,” Boston said.

Currently, American Airlines operates all four of the flights that leave Columbia each day for St. Louis. If American decided to end that service, it would be required to give 90 days’ notice. If no other airline were to step in, the federal government would take control to provide essential air service, which goes to the lowest bidder and consists of only two flights per day.

Boston said the reduction to essential air service is the primary threat the airport would face if passenger numbers don’t rise. Both the Kirksville and Joplin airports provide only essential air service.

“Nationwide, rural commercial airports have lost service, since 2001 particularly,” Boston said.

If the situation worsened, the airport could lose all commercial traffic and lose its $1 million annual appropriation for capital improvement funds from the federal government.

Boston said the airport is important to Columbia’s efforts to draw new businesses.

“Trying to attract business or industry is one of the things,” he said. “They’ll always ask about (the city’s) air service.”

Roberta Ramont, a businesswoman from California who recently flew to Columbia, said both she and her employer prefer flying directly to their destinations.

“A lot of people don’t like to drive rental cars,” she said. “It’s also better because I’m not familiar with the area.”

Norm Ruebling, MO-X owner, said that he recognized those economic impacts.

“I believe a well-run airport helps us all, including my business, too,” he said.

Despite those benefits, many area citizens are choosing not to use the airport. Boston guessed that misperceptions are causing the decrease in passengers.

“I think people have the incorrect assumption that it’s quicker, cheaper and easier to drive and a catch a flight out of St. Louis,” he said.

Besides driving themselves, people might be finding others to drive them. MO-X has been one popular option for Columbia residents. In its five years of existence, MO-X has seen business flourish. Ruebling said that about 60,000 people travel on MO-X each year.

Ruebling said he doesn’t think MO-X is in direct competition with the airport because the two businesses target different kinds of consumers.

“I don’t know if us not being here would solve the problem,” Ruebling said. “We should be directing the problem to the airline that services Columbia Regional.”

Even if MO-X and the airport don’t directly compete, many residents feel they must choose among flying, driving or being driven.

Bob Burchard, athletic director at Columbia College, said he prefers to have his teams travel with MO-X for several reasons.

“Part of the problem is the large groups and getting ticket availability on short notice,” he said.

Anthony Addison said he definitely prefers MO-X over flying out of the airport.

“It’s a very efficient group,” he said. “It’s rather more reliable than the airplane.”

Addison’s preference came about after a couple bad experiences at Columbia Regional. He missed his flight out of St. Louis to England twice because of delays at the Columbia airport.

Karen Sherga, however, prefers the local airport because of its speed. She traveled from Dallas to visit her daughter and chose to fly into Columbia rather than take MO-X or rent a car.

“I don’t want to wait for the bus shuttle,” she said. “This is just quicker.”

Columbia resident Jeanne Oldweiler said that she and her husband like to travel by air because of the convenience.

“We don’t have to fight trucks on I-70,” she said.

Harry Oldweiler said he prefers to fly out of Columbia because he avoids the hassle of going through security at a bigger airport.

To reverse the trend of declining passengers, airport administrators are working with the non-profit group SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, to put together a strategic marketing plan.

“They’re looking at several approaches to marketing the airport and getting more use out of it than we’re getting now,” Mike Dahl, a SCORE member, said.

The mid-Missouri chapter of SCORE was contacted by airport officials at the end of last year, Dahl said.

“That airport is important to Columbia, and it’s important we find a way to service people in Columbia with it better,” Dahl said.

SCORE will give a presentation to the Airport Advisory Board at 12:30 p.m. May 4 at the airport’s Building 9.

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