Kansas City International may soon be the only airport passengers can fly to from Columbia, if a proposal by Mesa Air Group is approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The proposal, which would eliminate all 12 flights to St. Louis and double flights to Kansas City to 24, is scheduled to be the subject of a public hearing tonight at a City Council meeting.
The change was recommended by Mesa Air Group, a commercial air service provider, after many flights to St. Louis were delayed or canceled and the number of passengers decreased. In the 2007 Airline Quality Rating report, Mesa’s on-time performance was rated at 73.3 percent, lower than the industry average of 75.5 percent. Customer complaints were 1.26 per 100,000 passengers, the third worst of all commercial airlines.
On Friday, after three customers at Columbia Regional Airport learned their flight had been delayed, they decided to rent a car and drive to St. Louis to catch their connecting flights.
Kathy Freckling, Columbia Regional Airport manager, was out of town and could not be reached for comment Friday.
Mesa’s proposal would allow it to have more flexibility in scheduling flights because it has its own gate and a spare airplane at Kansas City International, according to the council agenda for today.
KCI also offers 30 connection opportunities for Mesa, while Lambert International Airport in St. Louis has only three connections, said Jeffrey Hartz, manager of Mesa’s Essential Air Service Program. He said 45 to 55 percent of seats have been filled on flights to Kansas City and St. Louis within the past three months. “They (seat percentages) have been virtually identical,” regardless of the number of connections, Hartz said.
Mesa’s proposal, which will include comments from tonight’s public hearing, will be sent to the Department of Transportation for the final decision. Mesa would like the changes to take effect by July 8, Hartz said.
“As we haven’t gotten a proposal, we can’t say at this point when a decision will be made,” said Bill Mosley, public affairs specialist for the Department of Transportation. “We would solicit the community’s views and then make a decision as soon as possible.”
“Unless the city comes up with really good ideas, it will probably be approved,” Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins said.
He said, “The solution to Columbia’s airport is not moving passengers from Columbia to St. Louis to Kansas City. It’s to deliver passengers directly from Columbia to places they want to go. What they’ve got now isn’t working.”
Retaining commercial air service and passengers was one of the top problems cited among small airports in a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office. Still, some small airports serving populations comparable to Columbia have found ways to improve commercial air service and increase their number of destinations.
Eugene Airport, Eugene, Ore.
With a population of 142,000, Eugene has an airport with a customer retention rate of 55 percent or 700,000 people, Eugene Airport Manager Bob Noble said. The other 45 percent drive to Portland and fly out from Portland International Airport, the state’s largest airport.
Eugene Airport is the second largest, with four air carriers, including US Airways and Horizon Air, and direct destinations that include Denver, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Noble said small airports can increase their retention rates to thrive.
“To make a small airport successful, you have to match the interests of the community, demand, with the interests of airlines, profits,” he said.
Business travelers are a must as well because they are not as competitive with pricing since they need to travel at a certain time, unlike leisure customers, Noble said.
“When I am talking with the airlines I bring (Eugene’s) business community’s needs with me,” he said.
Noble said Eugene Airport works with Mesa Air Group and no frequent problems have occurred. He recommended that Columbia work on its concerns with Mesa and the “rest will flush out.”
One of the challenges facing Eugene, Columbia Regional and other small airports is a decreasing supply of smaller aircraft. He said that not as many are made anymore and that the existing ones are aging. Once these models wear out, only larger aircraft will be available and that will cause problems for smaller airports and their smaller populations, he said.
Austin Straubel International Airport, Green Bay, Wis.
The third largest airport in Wisconsin behind Milwaukee and Madison, Austin Straubel has six air carriers, including Delta Connection and United Express, and destinations to Atlanta, Chicago and other major cities.
The airport conducted a market analysis to determine the profitability for airlines to fly to major cities, like Atlanta and Las Vegas, and found that profits were possible, airport manager Thomas Miller said. Based on the results, the airport added the two destinations over time.
Green Bay’s retention rate is now 75 to 80 percent, compared to the national rate of 55 to 60 percent, Miller said. He attributes part of the success to loyal travelers and airfare prices.
“We stay on the airlines to get competitive airfares, no more than $40 to $50 more than nearby airports,” Miller said.
Instead of driving to larger airports for cheaper airfare, customers choose to fly at Green Bay and pay a little more, he said.
Springfield-Branson National Airport, Springfield
American Eagle, a subsidy of American Airlines, resumed flights this week to St. Louis from Springfield, after dropping it 10 months ago. It stopped its flight in June 2006 because of low passenger numbers, said Kent Boyd, public information and marketing director for the airport.
“The bottom line is that we were flying to St. Louis twice a day and the flight was maybe half full.”
Springfield-Branson flies to 12 cities, the largest being Dallas with nine flights a day.
Boyd said the commercial service an airport offers depends on what the flying public needs. He said passengers often don’t like to fly on propeller planes.
Greg Cecil, MU director of engineering development and a member of Columbia Regional’s Airport Advisory Board, agreed. He said passengers want to fly on jets, which aren’t economical to fly from Columbia to Kansas City or St. Louis.