Air carrier bidders draw praise

Transportation Department considers histories when choosing new carrier
Sunday, May 28, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:39 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The two air carriers competing to serve Columbia Regional Airport have good track records, according to airport officials in several cities the carriers serve.

Quincy and Marion, Ill., Garden City, Kan. , and Hot Springs, Ark., are just a few of the 140 cities that receive essential air service from the federal government. Soon, Columbia will join that list.

In February, Trans States Airlines announced it would discontinue Columbia Regional’s 20 round-trip flights each week to St. Louis. Soon after, the Transportation Department began taking bids from interested carriers. Two airlines, RegionsAir and Mesa Air Group, submitted proposals.

RegionsAir, operating as AmericanConnection, proposed four weekday round-trip flights to St. Louis and $728,438 in annual subsidies. Based in Smyrna, Tenn., RegionsAir flies out of 10 U.S. cities with its AmericanConnection line and has 12 Jetstream 32s in its fleet. Formerly known as Corporate Airlines, RegionsAir provides essential air service to three other Missouri airports: Cape Girardeau, Ft. Leonard Wood and Kirksville.

For Quincy Regional Airport, RegionsAir has been a nice fit, Airport Manager Mark Hanna said. Since May 2000, RegionsAir has provided the 40,000-plus residents of Quincy, with four daily flights to St. Louis through the essential air service program.

“We absolutely enjoy the service they offer,” said Hanna, who praised the carrier’s reliability and service.

RegionsAir has provided essential air service to Williamson County Regional Airport in Marion since 2000. Airport Manager Doug Kimmel said the airport serves a regional population of about 250,000. Like Columbia Regional Airport, Williamson County Regional once operated under Trans States Airlines, until the airline ended service there in 2000.

After six years with RegionsAir, Kimmel said the company has benefited passengers and stimulated traffic in the area.

“We have always been very pleased with their service,” he said. “Flights have consistently operated on time. Service here previously was far less reliable.”

“The only negative that we’ve seen really with Regions is somewhat of an inability to market and promote within the local level, and with all fairness I don’t think that is up to them,” Kimmel said. “Many regional airlines don’t take that initiative, and instead leave it up to the communities (to market and advertise), which we in turn do. (The airlines) rely on the code-share agreement to be their marketing, but I’ve never seen an American Airlines billboard, radio commercial, newspaper ad or anything in southern Illinois that makes southern Illinoisans aware that the airline is here in their backyard.”

Smaller air carriers form code-share agreements with larger airlines that provide service beyond hub airports.

“As a region, you have to be able to make your local population aware that the service exists and where it exists,” he said.

Kimmel said Mesa Air Group put in a bid to serve Williamson County Regional in January 2005 during the routine essential air service bidding period, but after community input the federal transportation department chose RegionsAir.

“Mesa is a very large regional airline,” Kimmel said. “They’ve got a lot of capability and have been around longer. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. I think we look back at Trans States, and a root cause of some of their operational difficulties was because of their size and growth.” Kimmel said competition between two carriers for an essential air service contract is a good thing.

“After other companies bid on our route last year, and our community did end up endorsing Regions, I was happy at least to see the interest from the other two carriers. Regions now knows they’re not the only game in town. (The competition showed Regions) that if they want to continue to have the community’s support, they need to do their fair share.”

Columbia Regional received two proposals for essential air service from Mesa Air Group. The Phoenix-based airline provides essential air service to about 25 communities across the country, said Mickey Bowman, Mesa’s vice president of planning. Named 2005 Regional Airline of the Year by Air Transport World magazine, Mesa has 185 aircraft. Twenty of those are 19-seat Beechcraft planes used on essential air service flights.

Garden City Regional Airport offers daily flights to Kansas City through the Wichita-based Air Midwest, a company owned by Mesa Air Group.

George Speake, director of aviation for Garden City Regional, said his community has been happy with Mesa.

“They’re as reliable as any other airline. When we need something community-wise, they are always really great,” he said.

Speake said Garden City Regional, which had 10,168 passengers last year, has contracted its essential air service to Air Midwest through Mesa since the late 1970s.

“I haven’t heard anybody say they weren’t happy with Mesa,” Speake said. “Our package will be up for bid again in 2007, and I’ll be shocked if we don’t go with Mesa again.”

George Downie, airport director for Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport, said Mesa has provided essential air service there through Air Midwest since 2002, offering two flights to Dallas and two to Harrison, Ark., each day.

“It’s probably the best (carrier) we have ever had here,” Downie said. “They are on time and flight cancellations are minimal.”. Mesa was also willing to work with the community and helped establish an advertising partnership with the airport, he said.

Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosley said that his agency will consider how the airlines bidding for Columbia’s contract have performed in other cities and is aware of those performance records.

“We will take any feedback into consideration, of course, when making those decisions,” Mosley said.

According to the Department of Transportation Web site, the federal government must consider carriers’ abilities to offer through ticketing and joint fares for connecting passengers, any code-share relationships the applicants may have with a major partner and the carriers’ experience in providing scheduled air service when selecting an essential air service carrier.

The Airport Advisory Board will meet Tuesday to further discuss carriers’ bids for service here, and a public hearing on the proposals is scheduled for June 5. The deadline for the city’s final recommendation to the Transportation Department is June 9.

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