Airline to File for Bankruptcy

MidAmerica St. Louis Airport officials said Friday they were caught offguard by the announcement that their main tenant -- TransMeridian Airlines -- would terminate operations and file for bankruptcy.

TransMeridian becomes the fourth airline to pull out of MidAmerica since the airport opened in 1997.

TransMeridian, based in Lithia Springs, Ga., in suburban Atlanta, confirmed Friday it was folding after failing to restructure its debt.

TransMeridian began service at MidAmerica on Nov. 21, 2004, to Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. The airline operated two flights a week for most of the year and three flights a week during the peak seasons of Christmas and summer.

MidAmerica Airport Director Tim Cantwell said he unofficially received word that TransMeridian would cancel all flights about 9 p.m. Thursday night, and then got the official announcement about 11 p.m.

Cantwell said he was disappointed with TransMeridian's announcement because the airline had been operating with about 80 percent of the seats filled on its flights in and out of MidAmerica, and that Mascoutah to Sanford had been one of TransMeridian's top routes.

St. Clair County had committed $310,000 in marketing incentives to the airline.

In fact, TransMeridian had announced a promotion in July where it was going to fly daily flights from MidAmerica to Sanford during two weeks in February.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said, "They had actually been talking to us about expanding service as little as a few months ago."

But ultimately, the carrier could not afford to operate its flights to more than 150 destinations in the United States, Mexico and South America.

"The company plans to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in a few days," said Frank Fraboni, a spokesman for TransMeridian. "Money is being held for ticket refunds. Those refunds will take some time and will be up to the bankruptcy court to decide when."

By filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the company is requesting to go completely out of business in order to liquidate and sell the company's assets, to pay off debt to creditors and investors. TransMeridian had previously filed for reorganization in federal bankruptcy court in September 2000 before coming to MidAmerica.

In Illinois, the airline also suspended operations out of Rockford International Airport, west of suburban Chicago.

Passengers scheduled to fly in and out of MidAmerica on Friday afternoon were left stranded as a result of the airline's abrupt announcement.

At midday, MidAmerica was empty. TransMeridian's flight schedule had been removed, and a notice explaining the company's failure was taped on the airport's outside door.

The news came just months after Great Plains Airlines withdrew its operations from MidAmerica as that company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reorganize its debt.

TransMeridian's departure from MidAmerica left the airport with its only scheduled passenger service from Allegiant Air, which since April has been offering flights to Las Vegas four days a week.

Cantwell said the airport is not to blame for the airlines pulling out of MidAmerica.

"We've given all these companies the opportunity to be successful. It's never an airport problem, it's an airline problem," he said.

Besides TransMeridian and Great Planes, Pan Am Airlines started flying to Orlando from MidAmerica in 2000 and lasted about 16 months before leaving because of a lack of business.

Another airline, Multi-Aero, launched service from MidAmerica airport to Chicago's Midway Airport in March 2002. The company was asked by St. Clair County, which owns the airport, to terminate its lease agreement in 2003 because it did not pay rent or operate a flight out of the airport for several months.

Cantwell said TransMeridian's major bills were paid up, and that the loss for MidAmerica would be an estimated 200 passengers a week and about $600 a week in passenger facility charges.

But, he remained optimistic about MidAmerica airport's future.

"I feel very strongly that in about two to three weeks we will see an announcement of a new airline," Cantwell said.