The Columbia, Mo., City Council voted last night to endorse a plan from a Phoenix-based airline to offer federally subsidized commercial flights to Kansas City and St. Louis.
The move contradicts separate recommendations from city staff and Jefferson City Mayor John Landwehr that Columbia accept a competing proposal from RegionsAir, which offered flights only to St. Louis. That plan, they said, would ensure that more connecting flights would be available to Mid-Missouri passengers flying to the Gateway City from Columbia Regional Airport.
The council's decision now will be sent to the federal Department of Transportation, which ultimately will decide which carrier will operate from the airport.
Mesa Air Group is offering 12 round-trip flights per week to Kansas City and St. Louis in exchange for an annual subsidy of $598,751.
"We work for the council, and the council made that decision," City Manager Bill Watkins said today. "Like I told" council members "last night, we're going to try to make the Mesa plan work."
After a public hearing on the proposals yesterday, council members debated whether the concerns about making connections in St. Louis outweighed the added flights to Kansas City, which the current carrier does not offer. In the end, they voted 4-1 -- Third Ward Councilman Bob Hutton and Mayor Darwin Hindman did not attend the meeting -- to endorse the Mesa plan, which also was endorsed by the Columbia Airport Advisory Board last week.
Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku voted against the proposal.
"We've already had one airline fail with the St. Louis option," Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless said. "Why do it again?"
Trans States Airlines, the airport's only carrier, provides 20 round-trip flights per week to St. Louis. The company announced plans in February to pull out of Columbia, though federal law requires it to continue its existing level of service until a replacement carrier is found.
Smyrna, Tenn.-based RegionsAir proposed 24 round-trip flights per week to St. Louis for an annual subsidy of $728,438. That plan, according to airline officials and city staff, would make it easier for flyers from Columbia to catch connecting flights.
Janku argued that only two flights per day to St. Louis and Kansas City on 19-seat turboprop planes could hinder the ability of area businesspeople to reach their final destinations.
"With only 38 seats a day going to St. Louis under the Mesa proposal, I think much more frequently people would find flights sold out," he said. "That low capacity is what drives my concern."
Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, also argued for the St. Louis-only option.
"My main concern with all the proposals is connectivity," said Laird, who added he was not speaking for the chamber. "I just think we'd be so much better off with St. Louis until something better can be found."
Airport Manager Kathy Frerking will draft a letter detailing the council's endorsement. The letter will be sent to federal officials by Friday.
Watkins said the letter will not include the concerns of city staff. He said he would discuss the council's endorsement with Jefferson City officials.
Landwehr did not return a call this morning.
A DOT spokesman said there is no deadline to choose which proposal for essential air service will be accepted.
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