Members of the Columbia Airport Advisory Board endorsed Mesa Air Group’s proposal to provide two round-trip flights a day from Columbia Regional Airport to Kansas City and St. Louis. The plan, approved at the board’s meeting Tuesday, would require $598,751 per year in federal subsidies. It was the cheapest of three proposals and the only one that offered flights to both cities.
The meeting was board members’ first chance to weigh in on the proposals for air service, two from Mesa Air Group and one from RegionsAir.
Discussion of the competing plans included Mesa Air Group’s six-month guarantee of $59 walk-up fees for customers who purchase tickets at the airport and RegionsAir’s promise to match that price, and the carriers’ agreements with larger airlines to provide service beyond hub airports.
Several board members expressed hesitation in endorsing a plan that offered service only to St. Louis, saying it was no longer the hub it used to be.
“St. Louis is no longer a hub; it is now more of a focus city. (Columbia Regional) was a spoke in that hub, then it dissolved,” said Robert Taylor, vice chairman of the board. “The question is, ‘Do we still want to be involved in that system?’”
Taylor presided over the meeting in the absence of chairman B.J. Hunter.
Board member Randy Eckley said he favored the plan to offer service to Kansas City and St. Louis. “I think this Mesa option with two hubs gives customers more options for service. Also, the (Mesa Air Group) plan is, by far, less expensive,” he said.
Mesa Air Group’s other proposal offered four daily round-trip flights to Kansas City and no flights to St. Louis and would require a $793,830 subsidy per year. RegionsAir, operating as AmericanConnection, proposed four weekday round-trip flights to St. Louis and $728,438 in annual subsidies.
Columbia Regional Airport Manager Kathy Frerking said that a consultant hired to study the travel needs and habits of passengers from the region found that “connectivity and finding the quickest way with the most options” was the No. 1 concern of travelers, with airfare coming in second.
Board member Donald Miles, who was the only board member to vote against the Mesa Air Group plan, said he favored the RegionsAir proposal of four weekday round-trip flights to St. Louis. “We are better off to stick with Regions,” he said. “The four flights a day to St. Louis is what people are used to. (Passengers are) probably still going to get the same service.”
Taylor said he was happy with the board’s decision to support Mesa Air Group’s plan.
“(The dual-hub plan) did seem to make the most sense, but it still is a hard pill to swallow because it is a fairly substantial change in the way our airport works,” Taylor said. “There will be a learning curve (if the plan is selected), as this will bring a different use to our airport.”
Taylor said he thinks the board’s decision to endorse the plan with the lowest subsidy was just a coincidence. “The price didn’t temper my analysis,” he said, describing the plan’s service to both Kansas City and St. Louis as “an increase in opportunity for the frequent flier.”
Board member Greg Cecil said Mesa Air Group had expressed interest in getting involved with the community by joining the Chamber of Commerce and offering promotions. “I like the idea that (a carrier) is going to spend money on advertising and partner with us,” Cecil said.
The Airport Advisory Board’s recommendation will go before Columbia City Council on June 5, and the deadline for the city’s final recommendation to the U.S. Department of Transportation is June 9.