In Missouri, we are no strangers to airports that are deep in debt. Lambert-St. Louis International Airport is still facing the consequences of its $1.1 billion expansion. Passenger traffic was declining when the airport expanded, and traffic is still declining.
MidAmerica Airport in St. Clair County, Ill., was built in the 1990s with high hopes that business would materialize. Have you ever flown out of MidAmerica? Me neither. The airport failed to ever gain a significant amount of passenger traffic. The government provided subsidies to airlines that did fly there, and many still quickly left the market. Fast forward to today: the airport continues to operate. This is when I wish I could tell you that there was a miraculous turnaround and MidAmerica found a way to become profitable. Oh, how I wish. The airport is still open because it has more than $100 million of debt to pay off. Where would MidAmerica find the money to pay?
The Manhattan Institute just published an article about the growing number of new or expanded airports that are underused or virtually empty. It gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach when I thought about the future of the Columbia Regional Airport. We have written about the airport’s expansion plans and Delta’s recent departure from the Columbia market. The Manhattan Institute article points out that “… airport expansions often increase ticket prices, driving businesses away. After airports have built new facilities, they pass the expense on to passengers in the form of pricier tickets.”
I do not know what the future has in store for Columbia Regional Airport. But MidAmerica’s failure shows us that “if you build it, they will come” is not necessarily true. I am not in a position to say whether Columbia is in need of expansion or improvements. But I take Delta’s departure from the market as a sign that they do not see Columbia as an area for growth in air travel. Columbia officials need to evaluate whether there are real opportunities for growth. If there are not, then a costly government-funded airport expansion is not a wise decision.