Additional Chicago Flight Evokes Ozark Airlines Efforts in 2000

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COLUMBIA - When Columbia Regional Airport adds a second daily flight to Chicago O'Hare this April, it may bring back memories of a long-gone airline that tried and failed to succeed on the same route.

American Airlines decided on the additional flight as a result of a growing demand from passengers to be able to fly twice daily to Chicago.

"Last year we saw a tremendous jump in the annual number of fliers out of Columbia Regional. 43,000 flew in and about 43,000 flew out so we saw 86,000 people come through Columbia Regional in 2013, and that's up a good 10% from 2012," said Steven Sapp, spokesperson for the Columbia Public Works department.

But nearly fourteen years ago, with the demand for flights from Columbia to Chicago just as high, a locally-owned airline brought back the name "Ozark" to fly to Chicago and Dallas--just as American does now.

Local physician Wes Stricker brought Ozark Airlines to the Columbia Regional Airport in 2000 after he realized the growing need for University of Missouri students to get back to Chicago, among other demands. At the time, the only flight out of the Columbia Regional Airport was to St. Louis.

"We had about 34,000 planements in the year 2000 which included the Dallas flights and the Chicago flights together. About 34,000, which is the most Columbia had had since the 60s and also the most we had until after Ozark left until just the last year or so when Delta and American came to Columbia...we had good demands but lacked the subsidies the later carriers have enjoyed," said Stricker.

American Airlines does have subsidies from the city to guarantee a minimum level of revenue per month, but the city has never paid out any of those subsidies.

Ozark Airlines brought three daily flights to Chicago, but stopped flying by 2001.

"I think the Chicago flight's biggest problem was the fact that it was to Midway, not to O'Hare. We couldn't get slots at O'Hare and we were in the process of finalizing a full codeshare agreement with American that would've allowed us to use O'Hare but at the time lots of things were happening in the world, to the hub and spokes system. The airlines started to fall apart and with the crash of 9/11, most of the smaller airlines went by the wayside."

But this April's additional flight to Chicago is expected to be more than just successful.

"Trending and looking at what our capacity will be coming in April of this year and what our numbers have been over the past couple of years, it's very reasonable to expect us to have 100,000 people pass through Columbia Regional in 2014," said Sapp.

The Columbia Regional Airport moved to fourth busiest commercial airport in Missouri behind Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield this year. The jump came after Southwest Airlines dropped service to the Branson airport.

The University of Missouri's move to the SEC, an increase in the international student population and overall growth of the central Missouri area have contributed to the increased demand.

"As we see additional airline growth in the mid-Missouri area, we're certainly seeing an increase in the number of passengers. Airlines measure the fullness of flights by what's called a load factor, and if we can get a load factor of about 70 percent or so, airlines are generally happy with that. We're in the low 80s and have been as high as the mid-80s over the past coupe of years, so that is telling airlines the market is here," Sapp said.

The load factor for Ozark Airlines was in the mid-70s.

Stricker said even though his plan failed, he expects the second daily flight to Chicago to soar.

"I think that American eventually will see enough success with that that they'll add a third flight and we'd love to see that happen," said Stricker.