When it comes to making a recommendation about which airline carrier should provide service for Columbia Regional Airport, the City Council is ready to hurry up and wait.
During a work session prior to its regular meeting Monday night, the council reviewed two proposals submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation last week. While members were pleased to see carriers interested in flying out of Columbia, they said more information was needed to make a decision.
“We’re talking to Mead & Hunt to see what the results of the travel survey says, and we’d like to compare it to what’s being proposed,” said John Glascock, director of the public works department. “We need to make a recommendation to (the transportation department) in two weeks, or come up with our own option.” Mead & Hunt is a consulting firm hired by the city to assess Columbia’s travel situation.
Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku asked what procedure the transportation department would have to follow should the city not respond with its recommendation by the allotted deadline in two weeks, and if air service would still be required. The ultimate decision about which carrier will provide service will be made by the transportation department, but not before it seeks input from city officials.
“We have to have service,” Glascock said. “If we don’t reply back to them then they’re most likely going to pick the cheapest carrier.”
From the outset, transportation department officials have said they prefer carriers who can provide the best service without requiring an overwhelming amount of support through subsidies. City officials, meanwhile, have expressed the desire for any carrier to fly to other hubs in addition to St. Louis, such as Chicago or Dallas.
In February, Trans States Airlines announced it will discontinue its 20 round-trip flights each week from Columbia to St. Louis. The Transportation Department gave interested carriers 30 days to bid under a federal program designed to procure minimal service for smaller communities. Federal rules require Trans States to continue service until a replacement is found.
Mesa Air Group, an Air Midwest airline, submitted two proposals. The first would provide two round-trip flights a day to Kansas City and St. Louis, while requiring $598,751 per year in federal subsidies. The second plan proposes no flights to St. Louis, instead offering four daily round-trip flights to Kansas City and requiring subsidies of $793,830 per year.
The other carrier, RegionsAir, operating as American Connection, proposed four daily round-trip flights to St. Louis and $728,438 in annual subsidies.
Watkins said the city is pleased that carriers are interested in servicing Columbia, but would ultimately like to access larger hubs such as Chicago.
“We think that’s ultimately where we’d like to go, and we think there is some community support to get us there,” Watkins said. “We’ve been trying to get to Chicago for 19 years with very minimal success. So, this isn’t something that is likely to happen overnight.”
What could hold up such plans is the fact that providing flights to Chicago would require any carrier to ask for a larger amount of federal subsidies. It’s a possibility the transportation department may not be willing to consider given the already high subsidies necessary to have flights to Kansas City and St. Louis, he said.
“We could consider the benefit of thinking to offer our own subsidy,” said Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless. It’s an idea that Glascock and Watkins said would be a feasible one.
Watkins said after the meeting, however, that any firm plans on covering additional subsidies would depend on the results of the travel survey conducted by Mead & Hunt, which should be completed in the next week.
Council members, though, felt that more information needed to be reviewed and more discussion needed to take place before a decision could be made. As a result, it decided to add a report to its agenda for the regular council meeting in order to discuss the proposals before the public.
This discussion occurred after the Missourian’s deadline.
Despite facing a two-week deadline, and having two proposals in hand that leave more to be desired, council members said there was still time to work out any kinks.
“(Any carrier) is going to work with us, because it’s the passengers that determine what’s going to be needed,” Janku said.