Columbia airport to lose commercial carrier

Thursday, February 9, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:05 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The regional airline that operates Columbia’s only commercial flights plans to depart the city in June, although federal guarantees mean service will not disappear entirely even if a new carrier can’t be lured in.

The decision by Trans States Airlines, which flies under the banner of American Airlines’ AmericanConnection, could result in fewer flights in and out of the city and will affect more than just the few hundred passengers who fly the airline each month.

“If you care about jobs, tax rates being high or low and the economic health of the area, it affects you,” said John Dean, chairman of the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which advises airport and city administrators. “A second reason is the image of the area. If you are trying to recruit an athlete, an employee or a business, the fact that you don’t have access to air travel, you become known as a real backwater area.”

Trans States told city officials of its decision Wednesday morning. The airline, which operates three to four turboprop flights a day to St. Louis, also plans to quit service to four other cities in Missouri and Illinois.

Acting Airport Manager Ken Koopmans said he hopes another carrier will be interested in flying from Columbia.

“This now gives us a clean sheet of paper,” he said.

Finding an airline to take Trans States’ place is a priority for city officials.

“We want people to be able to get in and out of Columbia,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said.

American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said another AmericanConnection’s carrier, RegionsAir, could replace Trans States. A news release from Trans States said it and American are “working with” RegionsAir to preserve flight service in Columbia and elsewhere.

But bringing a new airline to Columbia could be a challenge. Passenger numbers have fallen significantly in the past several years. Fewer than 20,000 commercial passengers flew from Columbia Regional Airport in 2005, compared with almost 34,000 in 2000. Improving those numbers is the key to viable air service, Dean said.

The city could offer interested airlines a guaranteed number of seats per flight or other subsidies, although these options have proved unpopular in the past.

City Manager Bill Watkins said he did not yet know what incentives could be used to lure another airline to Columbia.

“I don’t want to put anything on the table or take anything off the table,” he said. “It kind of depends on what it is going to take.”

No matter what happens, minimal service at least will continue to Columbia because of the city’s federal essential air service status.

Trans States is expected to submit a 90-day notice of termination as required by the U.S. Department of Transportation. When that happens, the department asks other airlines to submit proposals for service to Columbia. Federal rules require Trans States to continue service until a replacement is found.

“If there are competing proposals, we will consult the community,” said Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosley. “We seek community input on any proposal’s relative merits, service they provide and what the community would prefer.”

The proposals would include a schedule of flights, destinations to be served and all revenue goals, and airlines could request federal subsidies — up to $200 per passenger — if they determine they couldn’t serve profitably, Mosley said.

In making the final decision, the Transportation Department prefers carriers who can operate without a subsidy but will consider all proposals, he said.

The Transportation Department would actively seek input from public officials, Mosley said, but all residents will have the opportunity to file comments with the department.

Leases on the turboprop planes Trans States uses to fly in and out of five markets — Columbia, Joplin and Springfield, Mo., as well as Decatur and Springfield, Ill. — are set to expire in the coming months, Fagan said. The airline plans to discontinue service to all five airports.

Trans States’ decision coincides with a move toward all-jet service at four other airports it already serves in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Madison, Wis., Memphis, Tenn., and Fayetteville, Ark., Fagan said.

Missourian reporter Cristof Traudes contributed to this report.

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