Folks in Columbia, Mo., will not be flying to see Mickey this summer. Frontier Airlines, one of the two airlines still serving the Columbia Regional Airport, announced last week that it will discontinue service in May.
Frontier just began flights from Columbia to Orlando, Fla., last November. American Airlines now will be the only provider at the airport — and the company receives a revenue guarantee for two years to provide service. So if American does not make a profit from this market, they can still dip into funds that Columbia will provide to make up for any lost revenue.
Delta Senior Manager Trebor Banstetter commented that revenue guarantees “can be a tool to perhaps get things started, [but] . . . airlines really like to see a service that can sustain itself and be successful, without having a guarantee in place.” He added that the most important thing when considering what a community can offer an airline is “having the community and the travelers embrace the service and use it on a regular basis because without that it’s hard to justify operating the route.”
Banstetter makes the point that revenue guarantees and other subsidies are not sustainable. The only way to keep service at the airport is if the flight itself is profitable. Prior to 2008, Delta served the Columbia airport with revenue assistance from the federal government, as part of the Essential Air Service program to provide air service to rural airports. Delta continued serving the airport for the next few years, until it was no longer profitable (Delta reported a $900,000 loss in 2011). During this time, Columbia had two airlines and no city subsidies — and now it has just one, plus subsidies.
Columbia officials would be better served if they give up on the “40 in 2020” goal to have 40 percent of mid-Missouri airline passengers using the Columbia airport by 2020. The loss of Frontier and Delta are real indications that flying to Columbia is not profitable for airlines. Yes, it would be convenient for Mizzou students and others in the area to have affordable flights closer than Saint Louis or Kansas City. It might be difficult to conceptualize because we live in a world where the federal government subsidizes almost everything, but there are costs to doing business. We all face constraints in resources. Airlines cannot provide services to a market that is not profitable. How long will it take for Columbia officials to understand this?