Mar. 9 -- There's one local businessman in town who isn't concerned about the lack of commercial airline service at Columbia Regional Airport.
Just before the monthly airport advisory board meeting yesterday, Stan Kroenke's private, 95-foot-long Bombardier Global Express 5000 corporate jet taxied to the runway and took off.
Inside the meeting room, board members heard reports about how to provide airline service for everyone else.
Less than a month after the airport's only commercial airline announced plans to leave the market in June, acting airport Manager Ken Koopmans told board members that only Smyrna, Tenn.-based RegionsAir had expressed interest in coming to Columbia. "No other airline has expressed any interest whatsoever," he said.
Koopmans said RegionsAir CEO Douglas Caldwell has been "very positive" about coming to Columbia but remains uncommitted about replacing St. Louis-based Trans States Airlines' AmericanConnection service.
"I believe he intends to do so," Koopmans said.
He added, however, that if a commitment isn't made within "a week or so" the U.S. Department of Transportation would begin a process to put the service out to bid under the minimum-service provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act.
Caldwell did not return a phone call this morning.
Under federal law, a small market, such as Columbia, is entitled to adequate airline service to a hub airport. The transportation department would review bids and study financial and passenger traffic data to determine minimum service levels and any subsidy necessary to provide it.
Board members bristled at the thought of Columbia having federally subsidized airline service. Koopmans said after the meeting that subsidized service for Columbia was unlikely because Trans States has operated in the market without subsidy.
Local Trans States Manager Mike Sykora told the board a transition from Trans States to RegionsAir, both AmericanConnection service providers, would be virtually "seamless" for airline passengers. "The only difference is the type of aircraft," he said.
Trans States has used a fleet of leased, 30-seat J-41 turboprops to provide service for up to five daily flights to St. Louis. RegionsAir uses a 19-seat turboprop aircraft.
Meanwhile, Koopmans said the city plans to hire a consultant to complete an application by April 7 for a Small Community Air Service Development grant from the transportation department. The city could get between $250,000 and $300,000, he said.
Grant money is earmarked to improve community air service and can be used for a variety of purposes, including discounting ticket prices and promoting the airport, said Bill Mosley, a transportation department spokesman.
Regional Economic Development Inc. President Bernie Andrews said community leaders discovered the grant opportunity during a recent meeting with Trans States executives.
"Somebody asked, 'What would you do if you were in our shoes?' " Andrews said. The answer from Trans States was to apply for the grant.
Yesterday, the REDI board approved $8,000 to help pay the estimated $20,000 cost for a consultant to submit the grant request, which includes passenger demand studies and other data, Andrews said. The city will pick up the balance of the cost, he said.
Andrews said tight time pressure and a lack of experience makes hiring consultants a prudent thing to do. "Columbia never has been an applicant for one of these grants," he said. Consultants "have the expertise and many of these firms have a 50 percent success rate."
Airport advisory board member Rick Shanker said hiring consultants rubbed him the wrong way. "We've been consulted to death," he said.
Yesterday's meeting was the first advisory board meeting for new Airport Manager Kathy Frerking, a 25-year employee in the city's Public Works Department named to the post Friday.
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