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More Flights through Columbia Regional Airport (COU)

With more flights in and out of COU, travel in mid-Missouri looks to be on an upswing. But will it last?

As passengers drive up to Columbia Regional Airport (COU) on South Airport Drive, they might notice a new parking lot just north of COU’s previous 350-spot parking lot. Created d with some of the 80,000 tons of concrete torn up during a taxiway construction project earlier this year, the new lot provides travelers with 230 additional parking spots. And though the 95-percent federally funded project has meant a necessary update for COU, what seems to matter most are the cars in all those spaces and what each one represents.

“The number of cars in the parking lot is a great indicator of the airport’s success,” says Don Elliott, COU’s airport manager. For the various governmental entities, the University of Missouri and a slew of private investors who funded the more than $3 million, two-year revenue guarantee to American Airlines for service to Chicago and Dallas, each filled parking spot represents money saved and money earned.

Despite $22,562 paid for the airline’s service in February, which Columbia Director of Finance John Blattel attributes to “a significant number of discounted tickets sold to encourage people to get familiar with the new service,” no further payments have been necessary. In fact, the fund has actually made money, according to Blattel, who oversees the investment.

“The interest it’s gained is greater than the revenue guarantee we paid [for February],” he says. “It’s now more than $3 million.” Because the remainder of the fund will be distributed based on the percentage each entity paid in after the two-year guarantee is over, if the service can remain profitable for American Airlines, each investor could receive more money back than it had invested.

And Elliott isn’t surprised by the success. Not only have there been months when the flights to Chicago and Dallas were 92 and 85 percent full, respectively, but Elliott also expects 2013 to have the highest number of passengers in the past 25 years.

“Mid-Missouri is growing, and we truly need good air service because it’s vital to our economy,” he says. The once-daily flight to Chicago and twice-daily flights to Dallas mark the first time COU customers can fly into two major international hubs, Elliott says.

An increase in passenger counts will be vitally important if COU will meet Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid’s goal to attract 40 percent of all mid-Missouri travelers by 2020. The airport’s current market share is around 12 percent, up from 5 percent in 2006, according to a Passenger Demand Analysis conducted by COU.

Fueled by industry

About the same time that COU was betting on the success of American’s two flights, Beaumont, Texas, did the same. But while Columbia paid out $22,562 total, Beaumont paid out $170,000 for March and $140,000 for April.

In fact, according to a recent MIT study comparing the value of air service at various U.S. airports, COU has fared better than many other similar airports. Even though the ACQI (Airport Connectivity Quality Index) has decreased in most U.S. airports, COU’s ACQI has increased from 2.07 in 2007 to 14.85 in 2012.

For Elliott, COU’s success depends on the variety of industries in the mid-Missouri region with a need for travel. More than 80 percent of COU’s travelers fly for business purposes.

“[We] save business travelers a lot of time sitting in traffic on I-70,” Elliot says, recounting his own recent three-hour adventure to St. Louis.

Blattel says much of COU’s success can be attributed to marketing efforts to increase awareness of the new service among mid-Missourians and encourage private industry to conduct business travel through COU.

“Because of the success of the guarantee, we’re putting ourselves in the position to hopefully add a flight,” Blattel says. “Until we have a plane on the runway, we won’t know for sure.”

Elliott agrees that the success with American’s service may improve COU’s chances.

“Mid-Missouri is unique, and we could possibly accommodate up to four hubs,” Elliott says. “We currently have one to the North and South, but I’d really like to see one to the East and West—many [people] in the business community indicated that Denver and Atlanta would be ideal.”

Although the airport is currently working to get an additional flight each day to Chicago, Elliot says COU need a steady approach and will continue to track progress with its current service.

“Over the next few years the 50-passenger jets used at COU will be retired, and American’s just signed a contract for several 76-passenger jets with business class,” Elliott says. “And we have asked American to serve COU’s three flights with the new aircraft.”

Although Matt Miller, American’s media relations manager, says American is very pleased with the first six months of service at COU and the support of the surrounding community, he could not comment on the future plans of the carrier.

And with a potentially tough road ahead to get through the travel industry’s toughest time, decisions will have to wait.

“We haven’t gotten through the winter yet,” Blattel says. And for Elliott: “Seeing the entire year will be the best indication.”

Funding the Revenue Guarantee

$633,500 Private

$500,000 University of Missouri

$500,000 Boone County

$100,000 Jeff City

$100,000 Cole County

$1,166,500 Columbia

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