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Monday, November 24, 2014

Column: What the American Airlines agreement means for students

Mara Somlo

Nov. 6, 2012

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Just four minutes into a recent Columbia City Council meeting, an agreement was announced between American Airlines and Columbia Regional Airport. On Oct. 22, City Council gave its final approval to the agreement, bringing bold, necessary strides for Columbia’s transportation services and their cost-efficient standards.

The Columbia City Council approved the decision to bring nonstop flights to and from Chicago and Dallas, which will begin Feb. 14 of next year. Booking became available Nov. 4.

Included in the agreement is a $3.3 million revenue guarantee fund for American Airlines. This means if the airline company does not make a profit in the next two years, it can delve into this account. It also covers a waiver of up to $250,000 for landing and facility rent fees and $400,000 worth of radio advertising for American Airlines, the Columbia Tribune reported.

The additional airline and flights seem to have created a temporary solution for students traveling between Chicago or Dallas and the university, but it will be short-lived if both parties do not receive their benefits.

Because of this, Mayor Bob McDavid has a lot riding on him. AMR, American Airlines’ parent company, filed for bankruptcy in November 2011, putting pressure on American Airlines to fill its planes. In response, its operations depend on the success of the operating facilities.

To ensure Columbia Regional Airport will not lose the business, the mayor said the airport must expand. What is alarming and pertains to students with residency in Columbia is that he has not said how much expansion costs will be, and I find it likely that taxes will be among the cash flow that will make up this project. But if Columbia chooses to develop from the backbone of its business community, like other small airports have done in the past, the market should be stimulated.

The $3.3 million fund that American Airlines and Columbia Regional Airport have agreed to comes from pledges, or donation promises, by the city of Columbia, Jefferson City, Boone and Cole counties, area businesses and MU. Again, I question where MU has gotten the money to supply this project. But, hey — being from Chicago, I really appreciate having the extra option!

Because airlines have been affected by today’s economy, McDavid has ensured the agreement is a “guarantee per segment” system — or, in other words, Columbia Regional Airport will not be held accountable for flights that are cancelled due to weather, labor disputes or other circumstances.

The airlines and the city council have assumed the local community will support the additional flights, and I would have to agree. The number of students who come to MU from cities surrounding Chicago and Dallas is not without notice. Though some students may still prefer to make the seven-hour drive to Chicago or the 10-hour drive to Dallas, the new flights reach students who do not have cars to drive home or who want another option that is less time-consuming.

The only downside to the plan is that Delta, the existing airline at Columbia Regional Airport, wants to be included in the deal as well. As negotiations between the companies begin, there are threats that Delta will leave the airport. But as the schedule stands now, the only flights they provide are to Atlanta and Memphis. Understandably, Columbia does not want to lose its ties with Delta, but students’ demands for cheap and reasonable flights are for Dallas and Chicago, not so much to the other two.

Columbia Regional Airport has also embraced Frontier Airlines, which will begin flying passengers to Orlando starting Nov. 20. Unlike the predicted schedule for American Airlines, these flights may be just in time for some Thanksgiving travelers to book flights and may be beneficial for those going to Florida during winter break.

Since the airlines and the airport have begun to work things out, Columbia has announced its plan to reach a goal of 40 percent of mid-Missouri passengers using its airport by 2020. Even though statistics currently stand at 10 percent, MU’s transition into the Southeastern Conference and increasing student population should get the job done.

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