St. Louis Loses Favor with Smaller Regional Carriers.

Columbia will become the sixth small city across Missouri and the mid-South to lose service to Lambert since last spring.

When Air Midwest Flight 4743 pulled away from Concourse A at Lambert Field on a recent Friday morning, only three passengers were on board.

"We've got another light load this morning," the co-pilot announced to the cabin of the 19-seat turboprop plane bound for Columbia, Mo. "Sit wherever you want."

The load had been even lighter on the flight to St. Louis earlier in the day, the co-pilot said - one passenger.

And too often that has been the story on the 12 flights Air Midwest runs each week between Lambert and Columbia Regional Airport.

So Air Midwest, which flies the route as a regional carrier for US Airways, plans to shut it down in July and instead will double its service between Columbia and Kansas City.

When that happens, Columbia will become the sixth small city across Missouri and the mid-South to lose service to Lambert since last spring.

Flights from Joplin, Kirksville and Cape Girardeau, Mo., Owensboro, Ky., and Jackson, Tenn., have been switched to other hubs in the last year, the latest faint echo of St. Louis' decline as a center of air travel.

All six cities are part of the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airlines to connect relatively small, isolated airports with larger hubs. For years, St. Louis had been one of the biggest hubs of EAS flights, as travelers from smaller communities for hundreds of miles around hopped to Lambert Field to connect on Trans World Airlines and, most recently, American Airlines.

However, American's presence at Lambert isn't what it used to be, and there are fewer connections for those travelers to make. Also, Air Midwest has moved aggressively to add service in the region from its base in Kansas City.

Bridgeton-based Trans States Airlines dropped the Joplin route last year when it switched to an all-jet fleet. And six cities lost service to Lambert in March when the FAA grounded Tennessee-based RegionsAir over maintenance issues; only three will return when new airlines resume the routes next month.

All told, Lambert has lost five of its 11 EAS routes, and Columbia will be the sixth, which means travelers from there will connect to the world through somewhere else.

For Lambert, these flights are a drop in the bucket of passenger traffic; they generated about 90,000 passengers last year out of the 19 million who passed through the airport.

Still, the trend is troubling, said Lambert business and marketing manager Brian Kinsey, because it diminishes the number of connections the airport can offer as well as its status as a regional hub.

It's also a matter of pride.

"We take it personally when folks from outstate Missouri or outstate Illinois go through some other hub airport," Kinsey said. "They should be able to come through Lambert."

What travelers want

Sometimes, however, the passengers don't want to.

EAS routes are determined by the Transportation Department, which solicits bids from airlines and weighs the costs and community preference before awarding a two-year contract. In several bids this spring, communities made their preference clear: They would rather fly through somewhere other than St. Louis.

That was the case at Jackson's McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport, which serves a wide swath of West Tennessee and until March had 12 weekly flights to Lambert. When its EAS contract came up for renewal, local business groups deluged the Transportation Department with letters urging a switch to Cincinnati, a major Delta Air Lines hub.

Cincinnati has twice as many direct flights as St. Louis, noted Jackson airport director Rodney Hendrix, and can offer better connection times. Travelers coming in to Jackson, he said, often had to spend the night in St. Louis because the last flight left Lambert at 2:07 p.m.

"People here want to fly," he said. "But we've just been trapped. We can't make connections."

Too much wasted time

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