Flight Change for Columbia Regional Airport Close

Passengers could be leaving Columbia Regional Airport on Air Midwest planes by this fall, City Manager Bill Watkins said.

Air Midwest, a subsidiary of Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, will take over passenger service at the airport from existing carrier Trans States Airlines under the federal government's essential air service program. The company inked a deal with the U.S. Department of Transportation last week to offer the federally subsidized service.

"We think the transition will occur in about 90 days," Watkins said yesterday.

Mesa's plan includes 12 roundtrip flights each week to Kansas City and St. Louis in exchange for a subsidy of $598,751.

Trans States, which has operated as the city's lone carrier since 2001, only offers flights to St. Louis.

Watkins and three other city officials, including Airport Manager Kathy Frerking, met Wednesday with Mesa officials in Phoenix. Acting on concerns that splitting flights between Missouri's two largest cities would make catching connecting flights difficult, the four discussed increasing the frequency of flights to Kansas City and St. Louis.

That seems unlikely -- for now.

Watkins described the meeting with Mesa officials as "very, very positive" but said the company probably would not consider more flights to either city without assurances such a plan would be profitable.

Such assurances could include a guarantee from the city that a certain number of seats are sold on each flight or a direct city subsidy on top of federal funding Mesa will receive.

"They were quite adamant about that," Watkins said. "It's the frequency that will be most important, especially to the business traveler. If it's not adequate, we may lose" business travelers "right off."

Public Works Department Director John Glascock, who attended the meeting with Watkins, Frerking and Mayor Darwin Hindman, said Mesa might consider adding more flights after the expiration of its two-year contract in Columbia.

"They agreed they would look at things and work with us on it," he said.

It's uncertain exactly when Air Midwest will assume operations in Columbia.

Trans States spokesman Bill Mishk said his company is "ready to go. We're waiting for Mesa."

A call to Mesa spokesman Jeffrey Hartz was not immediately returned.

Watkins and Hindman agree the city is not ready to offer an extra subsidy for more flights, though the mayor said it is an option that could be considered in the future.

"I would consider looking at what all the possibilities are," Hindman said.

Mesa was one of two airlines that submitted bids to provide air service in Columbia. The other company, Smyrna, Tenn.-based RegionsAir, proposed 24 roundtrip flights each week to St. Louis for an annual subsidy of $728,438.

Mesa has a fleet of 22 Beechcraft 1900D turboprop aircraft, which seat 19. The airline provides services to 31 subsidized routes in 11 states for about $21.4 million a year in federal payments.

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