As the maiden voyage of Mesa Airlines approaches, business specialists say Columbia Regional Airport is at a “turning point” and they’re optimistic that travelers will book more flights. But some also have expressed frustration with delays in promoting the new service.
Mesa launches its service Oct. 5, providing two flights a day to St. Louis and Kansas City under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes air travel to small towns.
At issue is whether the new air service will attract customers at $118 per round trip to each of the neighboring metropoli, especially when door-to-door shuttle service by MO-X can be purchased for $82 online. Airport Advisory Board Chairman B.J. Hunter says the extra expense is justified for travelers who want to avoid spending two hours in a van on bumpy I-70, taking the chance that construction might slow down the trip.
Mesa Airlines realizes it needs to reverse the trend of airline travelers driving to Kansas City and St. Louis and believes its service to Kansas City will allow customers to connect with more flight options that save them money overall, according to Mickey Bowman, Mesa’s vice president for planning, who visited Columbia last week on a fact-finding mission.
“It’s a similar situation when you look at the history of air service in small-town America that unfortunately, since Sept. 11 (2001), has been in a state of decline across the country,” Bowman said.
Still, Bowman said Columbia’s situation is different.
“This is a true regional airport. Not only do you have Columbia, you have Jefferson City, and you have the surrounding communities. And we feel that it’s incredibly important to fill those needs.”
A $1.4 billion company, Mesa operates 188 planes with more than 1,100 daily system departures to 173 cities. Bowman said Mesa hopes that in two years it will no longer need the federal EAS subsidy and that it would like to add flights and destinations in the future.
Although surprised by Bowman’s repeated references to Columbia as a “small town” during his news conference — and by his apparent belief that Joplin was located in central Missouri — business leaders involved in the resuscitation of Columbia’s airport say they were encouraged by his entrepreneurial tone.
“We’re well under way here; we’re not just some typical EAS city with its tongue hanging out,” said John Dean of SCORE, Service Corps of Retired Executives, which the city enlisted to help rejuvenate the airport. He said Columbia does not fit the stereotype about EAS cities. “They are at the mercy of the DOT and the carrier because they don’t really have a plan, they don’t have leadership, they don’t have a start, and they’re basically dependent.”
A small group of six business, community and government leaders met with Bowman at the end of his Columbia visit, Dean said, for a frank discussion that will spark further talks in small-group meetings planned for the next few weeks.
“He was very understanding, as if he had seen all of this before, and had some suggestions and indicated that there was a way we could work together to deal with these barriers that have suppressed the ridership,” Dean said. “I feel pretty good, frankly. At the end of the meeting someone made the comment, ‘You know, this really seems like a turning point, this whole week’s events,’ because we now have a much clearer picture of who we’re working with and what the criteria are for expanding the service and becoming more regional.”
For the airport to thrive, Dean believes it could use an injection of business acumen. A good dose of profit motive and its resulting focus on the customer are just what the doctor ordered, he said.
“My perspective on it is that if you run something as a business, the first thing you worry about is your customers, not your suppliers,” Dean said. “It’s a syndrome of an agency that’s run like a government agency instead of like a business.”
Both the Airport Advisory Board and Mesa Airlines recognize that promotion and marketing will play an important role in attracting those customers. Bowman said local customers need to be reminded that Columbia offers reasonably priced air service that is reliable and on time.
However, Airport Manager Kathy Frerking said she has not been able to focus much time on promoting the new air service yet because of more pressing demands to get the service running.
“One drawback to being an airport owned by the city is that we don’t have much of a marketing budget,” Hunter said. “So we’ve got to find a way to effectively market the airport and get the word out of what’s going on, but being a city-owned entity, there’s not a lot of budget there for that.”
Hunter said many customers know that the flights are coming Oct. 5 because bookings are happening. A big reason for delayed action on promoting the service stemmed from Mesa’s recent startup of airline service in Hawaii, which caused Mesa to take a long time to get its new flight information to Columbia.
A fresh new airline may overcome past perceptions about lack of comfort and unreliability, Hunter said. Both Bowman and Hunter said the 19-seat airplanes Mesa plans to use are more comfortable than previous 19-seaters used in Columbia. Hunter said Mesa’s Beechcraft 1900 has one row of seats down each side, unlike the old Jetstream 31 airplane used by TransWorld Express, which had two seats on one side and one on the other.
“It’s kind of nice because you’ve got both a window and an aisle,” Hunter said. “But what that also does for you is it elongates the fuselage, which gives it a better ride.”
He said the airport’s suggestion box used to be filled with complaints when TransStates Airlines flew Jetstream 31 aircraft, a plane notorious for breaking down. “TransStates upgraded to Jetstream 41s about seven years ago, and since that time, I don’t think we’ve had a single mechanical malfunction cancel a flight,” Hunter said. “Yet, you talk to people in the community, and they’ll say, ‘Don’t fly to Columbia; they cancel flights.’ That’s difficult to get past.”
Meanwhile, University of Missouri graduate students have completed three studies of the airport’s situation, Dean said. The research showed that the main issue is the schedule, he said, including connectivity, waiting time, layover and frequency of flights.
SCORE has proposed a draft strategic plan for the airport that has not yet been approved by the city, and Frerking said the airport management has not had time to analyze the studies.
Although in mid-August the federal government turned down the city’s application for a $325,000 grant to improve the airport, promote it and provide discounted tickets, there are still suggested strategies to implement. For example, special rates might be given to large blocks of customers from major area employers such as the University of Missouri, Dean said.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s been suggested; there have been some people who have offered to take initiatives, and it’s not happening,” he said. “It’s water over the dam. The question is what are we going to do going forward.”