More Turbulence Ahead for Columbia Regional Airport

Passenger traffic at the airport has been in a free fall for more than a decade.

It was a good week for Mesa Air Group, but local airport observers wonder if it's also good news for Columbia.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation selected Air Midwest, a subsidiary of Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group Inc., to provide essential air service out of Columbia Regional Airport. The two-year deal provides 12 nonstop round trips to Kansas City and 12 nonstop round trips to St. Louis each week for an annual federal government subsidy of $598,751.

Air Midwest has been on a roll lately, snatching up subsidized markets to provide minimum service under the federal government's Essential Air Service program, or EAS.

Last week, the regional airline also won two-year government contracts to provide essential air service for the Nebraska cities of Grand Island and McCook for a combined annual subsidy of about $2.3 million.

"We are delighted to be awarded these new contracts by the U.S. Department of Transportation," Mesa Air Group Vice President Mickey Bowman said in a news release. "Our Air Midwest subsidiary has a long history of service in the Essential Air Service program. With the addition of these three new cities, Air Midwest will serve 31 EAS communities across the country."

Last month, the company won the essential air service contract for Joplin that comes with an annual subsidy of $849,757.

The Columbia Regional contract brings immediate relief for local airline service, but some wonder if it's nothing more than a two-year Band-Aid.

Passenger traffic at Columbia Regional Airport has been in a free fall for more than a decade, and the slide accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In 1995, the airport reported 34,349 passenger boardings. Last year, the number was 19,957 -- a decline of some 42 percent. Through May 2006, the airport reported 6,747 passenger boardings, which was off 17 percent from the same period in 2005.

Subsidized minimum service isn't the right medicine, said John Ellis, an aviation consultant and former chief executive of defunct Ozark Air Lines.

"EAS is not good for Columbia at all," he said. "The sad part is that EAS subsidies provide little incentive to develop expanded routes."

Local travel agent Dan Stookey of Summit Travel said he's not in favor of the Air Midwest option.

"I question the frequency of two flights a day to St. Louis," he said. "I don't think that's enough."

And Stookey worries that Air Midwest lacks electronic ticketing and baggage agreements with all of the cooperating airlines that fly out of St. Louis. "We'll just have to sit back and see," he said.

Founded in 1965, Air Midwest was acquired in 1991 by Mesa Air Group, which operates 185 aircraft with more than 1,100 daily departures to 173 destinations in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Mesa Air Group operates as US Airways Express, Delta Connection, United Express, and independently as Mesa Airlines and go!, a recently launched island commuter airline in Hawaii.

Air Midwest, which serves 44 cities in 19 states, has a fleet of 19-seat Beechcraft 1900D turboprop aircraft. It provides service to 31 subsidized routes in 11 states for about $21.4 million a year in federal payments.

The company's EAS operation is a sizeable portion of the national program -- about 20 percent. Nationally, EAS subsidizes airline service to 154 communities for a total annual subsidy of $109 million, said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the transportation department.

Air Midwest operates as America West Express in Phoenix, Mesa Airlines in Albuquerque and Dallas/Fort Worth and US Airways Express to hubs in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

Three years ago, the company experienced an airline's worst nightmare.

On Jan. 8, 2003, Air Midwest Flight 5481 crashed shortly after takeoff from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport killing the two-member crew and all 19 passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the aircraft malfunctioned because it was overloaded.

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