By Henry J Waters III
The pending expansion of airline service to and from Columbia Regional Airport is good news indeed. Nothing is more important to our economic development.
To be sure, the promised carrier is American Eagle, part of American Airlines, which is struggling to emerge from bankruptcy and a spate of problems involving loose seats. But in the world of air travel, the big carriers seem to survive such occurrences. Surely American will be in business and ready to grace our runways come February, when the new service is set to begin.
American will provide two daily round-trip flights to Dallas/Fort Worth and one to Chicago O’Hare, expected to double the number of passengers at our terminal. If business fails to reach certain levels, American will be promised subsidies from an escrow fund built in recent months with contributions from the city of Columbia, Boone County, local businesses, Cole County and Jefferson City. If projections are accurate, passenger business will make subsidies unnecessary. American wouldn’t come if it thought it needed such a transitory economic footing.
Already, Delta Air Lines and Frontier Airlines provide flights to Atlanta, Memphis and Orlando. With the addition of American, we will be served by three major companies, quite a change from only a few months ago.
To accommodate this growth, a new airport terminal must be built with at least three gates, Mayor Bob McDavid says. Given the inevitable succession of the chicken and the egg, unless the promised service expansion dies aborning, following up with a new terminal should be the least of challenges. The city will have to guarantee the borrowing, but the real underpinning is the increased air traffic revenue.
If a brand-new terminal is in the offing — and that grand solution is most appealing — we have a chance to design and build a beautiful state-of-the-art facility at a time when borrowing and construction costs are at near-historic lows. That sort of cosmetic improvement will add curb appeal to the basic advantage of better customer service.
The project is made more feasible because of the sudden change in airport revenue prospects. I don’t know the record for quick service provision turnaround, but our lurch from one puny commuter carrier to three majors must be close. The chickens are not fully hatched, but we can hear the beaks pecking. Now is the time to make the nest ready.
Two reasons for not taking action: 1) I’ve done that before. 2) I’ve never done that before.