COLUMBIA -- The city council needed just four minutes to adjourn a special meeting Friday afternoon, a discussion which officially introduced an agreement with American Airlines to connect flights from Columbia Regional Airport to Dallas-Forth Worth and Chicago.
Mostly a formality, the lightning-fast meeting now sets the stage for public comment on Monday and a vote on Oct. 22, Mayor Bob McDavid said. If the agreement passes and the city allocates $3 million in a revenue guarantee fund, flights from American Airlines will begin in Columbia this winter.
But that's all it is- a beginning.
"The first phase is to get these planes into town," McDavid said. "[But] if you don't manage this right -- if you don't fill those planes -- you may not get another opportunity for a generation."
American Airlines, whose parent company (AMR) filed for bankruptcy in Nov. 2011, could discontinue flights in Columbia if it "determines in its sole discretion that the operating facilities at COU are inadequate for American to commence service at COU," according to the documentation released today by the city council.
McDavid said Columbia Regional Airport must expand in order to accommodate the potential flights from American Airlines, although he would not speculate on the exact costs of expansion.
"That's going to involve a lot of work," McDavid said. "It's going be expensive. We have to find pools of revenue to support it."
McDavid also acknowledged American Airlines' bankruptcy is a "concern."
"We've thought about it. The airline business is a difficult business," McDavid said, "I firmly believe the planes we are contracting to come into Columbia will be operational."
If American Airlines does not climb out of bankruptcy, McDavid said the agreement protects the city from any flights that do not materialize. He called it a "guarantee per segment" system, which means the airport is not responsible for flights that do not take off due to weather, labor disputes or other circumstances.
The future of air travel may be uncertain in Columbia, but a quick glance at other cities may help explain the city's situation. An airport in Fargo, N.D., for example, added flights to Chicago on American Airlines in 2010, and the airport director said the additional destinations have helped economic development due to backing from the local business community.
In fact, that's what Shawn Dobberstein said may determine the fate of American Airlines' flights in Columbia.
"They will definitely stimulate the market in Columbia," Dobberstein said. "But once it's there, you've got to support it. And you've got to support it at a profitable level."
In Fargo, Dobberstein said his city's agreement with American Airlines has partly helped the airport set records for air travel. On the other side, though, there's a danger in failing to offer enough support. American Airlines discontinued flights in Fayetteville, N.C. this January because it could not fill enough seats.
"Whether it's here in Fargo, in Columbia or in St. Louis, wherever it is, if the airline is going to make the investment, they expect that the community's going to support it," Dobberstein said. "That's no different than what any carrier will expect."
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