Feb. 9--Despite the planned departure of Trans States Airlines from the local market, commercial passenger air service likely will continue at Columbia Regional Airport. At what level, though, remains to be seen.
The announcement yesterday that Columbia's only commercial airline plans to pull out will trigger provisions of a 1978 federal law designed to protect smaller markets.
Bill Mosley, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Transportation, said that if another nonsubsidized commercial carrier does not enter the market to replace Trans States, the transportation department is required to solicit proposals for subsidized service under the Airline Deregulation Act.
If no private carriers are interested, Trans States could be required to offer service with a subsidy, he said.
The federal law says a smaller market, such as Columbia, is entitled to "minimum service," which means flights to a hub airport on aircraft with at least 15 seats. According to federal regulations, that also means "flights at reasonable times, taking into account the needs of passengers with connecting flights."
The transportation department would review proposals, including financial and passenger traffic data, to determine minimum service levels and any subsidy that would be required to provide it, Mosley said.
Trans States has operated in Columbia without federal subsidy, said Bill Mishk, a spokesman for Trans States. The company plans to file a "notice of termination" with the transportation department of its intent to vacate the market.
Trans States will not submit a proposal to stay in Columbia, but if selected by the department to operate minimum service on a subsidized basis, it would only do so "for a short period of time" until another carrier was selected, Mishk said.
Trans States President Rick Leach said the company decided to stop leasing turboprop airplanes and go with more economical jet service.
Mishk said the Columbia market is "very seasonal" and has operated at "break-even for the most part." Jet service is not an option, he said.
"The cost of operating regional jets on a short, 90-mile flight is prohibitive," he said.
Smyrna, Tenn.-based regional carrier RegionsAir is interested in replacing Trans States, RegionsAir President Doug Caldwell said.
RegionsAir links 10 communities with Lambert St. Louis International Airport, including Kirksville, where a flight crashed on approach in 1994 and killed 13 passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed pilot error.
Passenger traffic at Columbia Regional Airport last year rose 11 percent to 19,957 compared with 2004, but it was down nearly 46 percent from 37,172 passengers in 1993.
Columbia Regional Airport might always have minimum commercial airline service, but fewer passengers could mean more headaches. The airport could lose an annual $1 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration if it has fewer than 10,000 passenger departures each year for two consecutive years.