MIAMI — “Why drive when it’s so easy to fly Columbia Regional Airport?” This ad has become a common slogan in the mid-Missouri area as the small one-gate airport struggles to survive. Nearby, and larger, Kansas City and St. Louis airports both offer more destinations, more carriers, and cheaper airfares than does Columbia.
This potential David amongst comparative Goliaths had held its own for a while. That is until the last ten years as inconsistent airline service struggled to keep customers coming through the door and through the gate. However, the airport has seen a rebirth and is ready to take off once again.
Columbia Regional Airport was originally Columbia Municipal Airport back when the airport was located at the site of the current Columbia Cosmopolitan Park, in the northwest part of Columbia, Missouri. The municipal airport had two runways. Runway 35/17 was a 4000ft runway while runway 10/28 was a shorter crossing runway. The city had daily Ozark Airlines Douglas DC3 service to St. Louis and Kansas City at the time.
In the 1970s Columbia removed the airport in favor of a park, choosing to build a new one twelve miles south of town near Ashland, Missouri. The new field would merge both Columbia and Jefferson City’s airports into one. Ozark continued to provide service to Columbia to both Kansas City and St. Louis.
In 1986 Ozark Airlines was bought out by Trans World Airlines, which inherited the St. Louis to Columbia route. TWA’s route was operated by a BAe Jetstream 41 via Trans States Airlines through the 1990s, but the airport was on a downward trajectory. Columbia saw fifteen peak daily departures in 1985, but the number of flights had dwindled to six by 2001, due to TWA retracting services in bankruptcy.
In the late 1990s Dr. William Stricker announced that he planned resurrect the Ozark Air Lines name with the goal to fly Dornier 328Jets to Dallas/Ft. Worth and Chicago Midway from Columbia. Ozark Air Lines started on February 21, 2000 but the airline struggled to compete with TWA and Stricker quickly sold the airline to Tulsa based Great Plains Airlines, who axed all flight to Columbia soon thereafter. Memories of Ozark still can be seen at the airport was their main hanger has a picture of one of their planes painted on the side and the fuel tank still bears the name “Ozark Air Lines”.
In 2001, TWA merged and American Airlines inherited the St. Louis-Columbia route, which lasted until 2006, a victim of the STL hub downsizing. The departure ushered in a rotating cast of carriers.
US Airways Express accepted the challenge of trying to stimulate airline growth in Columbia by offering Air Midwest connecting flight to Kansas City and St. Louis with Beechcraft 1900Ds. US Airways quickly dropped the St. Louis flight in favor of extra Kansas City flights. Eventually US Airways terminated its contract with the airport in 2008.
Northwest Airlines started service to Columbia which at this point became part of the Essential Air Service plan. The carrier offered twice daily SAAB 340 service between Columbia and Memphis. Right after Northwest started flights it merged with Delta Air Lines, who inherited the Columbia to Memphis flights. Delta added a third flight between Memphis and Columbia, and in 2010, switched from SAAB 340s to Pinnacle Airlines’ Bombardier CRJ200s. Flights occurred once in the early morning, another around noon and a third around 6PM Central Time. Columbia was pleased with the service but over time the city became interested in Atlanta as a destination on Delta.
This demand for Atlanta was stimulated in 2011 after the city lost a bid for an agriculture company who picked Omaha instead of Columbia because “Columbia lacked one stop service to Barcelona”. Delta cooperated and in the summer of 2012 Delta added once daily flights to Atlanta operated on ExpressJet Airlines CRJ200s replacing the noon flight to Memphis with a flight to Atlanta. Delta’s Atlanta flight saw large popularity and Delta converted the morning flight from Memphis to Atlanta as well. Delta saw flouting results averaging in a 92% load factor over the years.
The City of Columbia was further pleased with 2012 when Frontier announced twice weekly service to Orlando. Flights occurred on Tuesdays and Saturdays with Frontier’s Airbus A319 equipment. Frontier started the flights on November 20, 2012 with the arrival of first Airbus A319 from Orlando. Columbia Regional Airport said the flights were very popular when Frontier added a third weekly flight. However, Frontier said Columbia failed to meet the load percentage needed to keep the flight and Frontier ended Orlando service on May 12th, 2013.
While Frontier continued service Columbia pulled in a third airline: American Airlines. American announced it would start service February 14, 2013 with twice daily flights to Dallas/Ft. Worth and once daily to Chicago O’Hare. The city ensured the carrier a $3 million revenue guarantee to the carrier.
This did not sit well with Delta, which was never given a revenue guarantee on either its Atlanta or Memphis routes. Delta took its complaints to Columbia city council and the city said if Delta would bring bigger jets such as the Bombardier CRJ700s, CRJ900s or Embraer ERJ170s it would receive the same revenue guarantee. Upon hearing this Delta announced it would cancel all routes to Columbia on February 13, 2013 citing too many airlines servicing too small of a population as well as a “matter of fairness.” Delta CRJ-200s are still seen at Columbia Regional Airport as the airline is still contracted to fly the Missouri Tigers basketball team to road games.
Since the departure of Delta and Frontier from Columbia, the city council has looked for alternative airlines to replace them. Rumors have gone around town saying the city is in talks with United to fly to Denver, Houston, or Washington D.C. as well as Allegiant to fly to Las Vegas and Orlando. However the airlines have not formally stated that they are interested in the city as a future destination. American Airlines has seen success at Columbia and recently started a second daily flight to Chicago O’Hare. To this date the city has only had to use $200,000 of the $3 million revenue guarantee to American.
As Columbia looks forward they have set a series of goals for the airport to achieve over the next couple of years. The city recently designed what would be a new three-gate terminal to replace the current one-gate terminal that dates to 1968. The new facility is badly needed: baggage claim for the existing field is contained in a double wide trailer. The new terminal would cost between $17 million to $19 million and would be built just south of the current terminal. The airport wants another carrier to ensure the terminal, however. Given the rate the airport is gaining and losing airlines, it could be a while.