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
For Jimmy White, a pipe salesman from Jackson who flies weekly, those connections through Lambert became a big hassle, especially after American's cutbacks in 2003. Several times, he said, his flight home was canceled and he had to rent a car. Even when things went smoothly, it could be a long trip.
"I'd have to go from Jackson to St. Louis to Chicago to my destination," White said. "I just can't waste that much time on a plane."
Citing strong community support, the DOT awarded the Jackson route to Big Sky Airlines, through Cincinnati, even though it was a bit more expensive.
The same thing happened in Cape Girardeau, which had direct flights to Lambert since the 1950s. When the EAS contract came up for renewal this spring, there was debate about whether Cincinnati might be a better choice, said airport manager Bruce Loy.
"It was one of the most difficult decisions we've ever made," he said. Emotions ran high. But in the end it came down to numbers.
"Destinations out of St. Louis have dropped," Loy said. "It's getting tougher and tougher to get places through there."
So Cape Girardeau's Airport Board and City Council threw their weight behind Big Sky Airlines' proposal for 19 weekly flights to Cincinnati. The Transportation Department agreed. Flights to Lambert ended in March.
Trying to regain flights
Next time around, Kinsey said, he plans to work hard to bring those flights back to Lambert. The airport will partner with Great Lakes Aviation, which runs EAS flights to Burlington, Iowa, and three cities in Illinois, to promote Lambert's American Airlines connections and fares that are lower than those in Cincinnati.
"It's up to us to get with these communities and make our case," he said. "Nobody from Cincinnati is going to go to Cape Girardeau" to win a contract there.
The situation in Columbia is a bit different.
In October, Air Midwest won a bid to fly 12 weekly flights each way to St. Louis and Kansas City as a feeder for US Airways. But from the start service was unreliable, said airport manager Kathy Frerking. Delays were common and passenger traffic slumped as many passengers hopped a two-hour shuttle van to Lambert or Kansas City. In March, just 1,335 travelers used the airport.
So last month, Air Midwest proposed a change. It would run all 24 of its weekly flights to Kansas City, where it owns gates and has maintenance crews and planes stationed.
Part of Air Midwest's problem in St. Louis has been working around other airlines' schedules, said Jeff Hartz, director of EAS service for Mesa Air, the parent of Air Midwest.
"Having our own station in Kansas City allows us to control our product a little better," Hartz said. That, he hopes, will mean better connections and fewer delays.
The switch still needs DOT approval, but it has the support of Columbia officials, who are hungry for better service. Air Midwest wants to make the switch by July, so days are numbered for that 19-seat prop flight out of Lambert.
When Flight 4743 pulled up to Columbia Regional Airport's red cinderblock terminal after a 35-minute hop across Missouri farmland from St. Louis, only two of the three passengers even got off. The third stayed on, bound for Kansas City, and he was joined by eight more, off to connect to the rest of the world from somewhere other than Lambert Field.
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