Regional partners hope to add Chicago flights

Mid-Missouri partners want to raise $2 million to attract an airline
Tuesday, August 28, 2007 | 8:58 p.m. CDT; updated 10:58 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — With help from MU and neighboring cities, officials with the city of Columbia say they hope to raise roughly $2 million to persuade a commercial airline to carry passengers non-stop between Columbia Regional Airport and Chicago.

For now, the city is quietly pitching ballpark figures to partners at MU, Jefferson City and the Tri-County Lodging Association in the Lake of the Ozarks area. The figure is an estimate of the money it will take to insure skittish airlines against financial losses in a market where passenger boardings are bottoming out.

Because the negotiations are sensitive and preliminary, the partners said they were wary of discussing specifics until the $2 million figure — broken down as $700,000 each from Columbia and MU and $300,000 each from Jefferson City and the lake association — surfaced during a meeting last week in Sunrise Beach. Jim Divincen, administrator for the Tri-County Lodging Association, confirmed the numbers.

The group believes the insurance backstop is a necessary step in its efforts to secure a 50-seat jet for twice-daily flights five days a week and a single flight on Saturdays, Divincen said.

The group agrees that direct flights to Chicago from Columbia Regional could potentially improve mid-Missouri’s economy.

Because Chicago is a larger hub than both St. Louis and Kansas City, passengers would benefit from a larger variety of flight destinations. For the same reason, the 10 million people living in the Chicago area and the millions taking flights through the city would have an easier trip to Central Missouri.

MU students, staff and faculty would benefit from an airport close to home, said MU spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken, “and it would help us in our recruitment of national faculty.”

Banken said MU administrators are in very early discussions with the city, but “nothing definitive has been decided.”

City Manager Bill Watkins said the partners will need to provide some financial insurance to lure an airline.

“We’ve been talking to several airlines, and we know that we’re going to need some kind of guarantee,” Watkins said.

Greg Cecil, a member of the Airport Advisory Board, agreed with Watkins. He said he first learned of the plan from a Columbia Daily Tribune article Friday.

“We’re supposed to advise the city on airport matters,” Cecil said. “It would be helpful to be aware of things.”

In reference to the city’s unwillingness to include the board, Watkins said, “Right now we’re working on a need-to-know basis because everything is very preliminary.”

The partners agreed that, even though figures have been discussed, nothing is in writing and nothing has been decided.

“I don’t think the city of Columbia has worked out hard numbers with anybody,” said Steve Rasmussen, city administrator for Jefferson City.

Rasmussen said that although an estimated $300,000 contribution had been discussed, a decision to proceed with a specific figure cannot be made without a written proposal before the city council. Divincen said the Tri-County Lodging Association Board of Directors would need the same.

Commercial air service at Columbia Regional Airport has suffered for years. Air Midwest, a subsidiary of Mesa Air, provides four flights daily to Kansas City International Airport after eliminating flights to St. Louis earlier this summer. Air Midwest receives a subsidy of more than $500,000 per year from the U.S. Department of Transportation under an essential air service contract. Passenger numbers, however, have continued to decline.

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