Airport makes long-term expansion plans as passenger numbers rise

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COLUMBIA - The Columbia Regional Airport is seeing more passengers coming in and out than it has in many years.

Airport Manager Don Elliott the airport is on track for about 50,000 passengers coming and going this year. That's up from 9,000 people in 2007.

"This will be the highest number we've had in about 29 years," he said. 

He said he attributes the success to reliable service, flights to places people want to go, and even the free parking.

"We constructed some overflow parking to help alleviate some of the problems, " he said. 

American Airlines began offering flights from Columbia to Chicago and Dallas in February, 2013.

Columbia Chamber of Commerce President Matt McCormick said having flights to these two major cities gives people the ability to easily go anywhere in the world. 

"It makes it very easy to leave Columbia, fly to Dallas or fly to Chicago, and end up in Washington D.C., or California, or in Ireland," he said. "There's a number of different places where you have that accessibility from right here in Columbia." 

The airport has had success filling flights to and from Dallas and Chicago. Steven Sapp, of Columbia Public Works, said the airport is at about 80-85 percent capacity on flights so far. 

The city of Columbia and American Airlines agreed on a guarantee in 2013 when the flights were established.

McCormick said the airport must sell a certain number of tickets for every flight, and if it falls below that number in a month, the guarantee helps cover the difference.

Elliott said the partnership did have to pay the guarantee for the first two weeks, because the flights weren't full, but the airport hasn't had to do so in months.

He said the first challenge was to establish a base of people flying into Columbia Regional Airport. 

"Once we populated the system, then the flights coming back were full," he said. 

McCormick said the airport not only provides a convenient way to travel the world, but it also positively affects the local towns economically.

He cited some businesses in the area that are now able to use the airport that couldn't before, such as American Air Filters. 

"They were able to fly one of their board members all the way from Japan straight to Columbia," he said. "A couple of years ago we wouldn't have been able to do that."

McCormick said other businesses in Columbia benefit when new people fly into town. 

"They're also staying in hotels, eating in our restaurants, getting rent cars, purchasing gas," he said. "So that economic impact grows more and more." 

Kim Ponder, president of the Southern Boone County Economic Development Council, said the increase in consumer traffic coming to Ashland would bring more tax dollars to the city as well as a promise of new businesses. 

"With that comes great jobs, great opportunities, new houses," she said.

Sapp said such growth comes with new issues that need to be addressed, including infrastructure problems and limited capacity. 

"A lot of people in Mid-Missouri fly and we serve about a 17 county area," he said. "Right now what's really hurting us is capacity. We simply don't have the capacity on the number of seats per day, we don't have the capacity in the terminal."

The airport created a master plan in 2011 with provisions such as extending and reconstructing the crosswind and main runways, getting jet ways to protect passengers from harsh weather, and constructing a new terminal. 

For now, the airport has semi-permanent buildings for additional space.

Elliott said, "They will be here for quite a while, until we find funding in the future for a new terminal for the next 50 years."

Also on the agenda are additional flights.

McCormick said Charlotte, South Carolina is high on the priority list, especially with its ties to the SEC.

Sapp said Denver, Colorado and Baltimore, Maryland have also been suggested as possible destinations. 

Sapp said the city and the airport hope to begin their plan as soon as they are able to get funding, and will continue to work with airlines to bring in flights to the destinations on their wish list.