The University of Missouri’s move to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) has been drawing record-number crowds to Columbia- and many of these SEC fans are flying.
For the already sold-out SEC game against Alabama, Columbia Regional Airport Manager Don Elliott says Delta has added a direct flight to Birmingham, Ala., which would be the second time the airline has added a flight to serve the needs of SEC fans.
The first weekend that required added flights, Elliot said, was during Mizzou’s debute in the SEC against Georgia. Elliot said two of the “Georgia” flights were at full capacity, with two other flights being at 98 and 96 percent capacity.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and this was the first time I have noticed such a major turnout,” Elliott said.
Currently, Columbia Regional Airport only has direct flights to Memphis, Tenn. and Atlanta, and will begin flights to Orlando, Fla. in November.
This growth has led Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid to push for expanded air service in the area. McDavid recently announced he had secured $3 million in pledges to lure another airline to the Airport. Cole County has also pledge $100,000 to the effort.
Regional Economic Development, Inc. has committed $50,000 to this effort. REDI President Michael Brooks says Columbia has been overlooked by businesses in the past because it lacks a wide-serving air service.
“One company wanted a location that was within an hour’s drive of an airport, that would provide one-stop service to Barcelona, Spain. At the time, our only service out of Columbia was Memphis. Memphis didn’t have service direct to Spain; their international connection is Amsterdam, which means you are now dealing with two stops between Columbia and Barcelona,” Brooks said. “The competing location for the site had that criteria, so it’s an example of how important air service can be in recruiting new investment jobs to our community.”
Elliott and Brooks say the Airport is looking to expand flights to Denver, Chicago and Dallas.
“There is a productivity question. You’re losing at least two hours each [way] commuting to the airports [in St. Louis and Kansas City],” Brooks said. Adding an airline has “a very real benefit to business travelers.”
Elliott does not expect the airport to operate outside of its current hub-and-spoke system, but he says the airport can better serve western cities.
It has been confirmed by REDI that the University will increase its annual donation to REDI by $20,000 on the heels of REDI’s commitment to the airport expansion.
Brooks says the benefits to the University of an added airline are multi-pronged. Added destinations to areas like Chicago would attract out-of-state students, and administrators and researchers can more easily travel to and from the University for conferences.
McDavid has been tackling the issue of expanded air service before the University announced its move to the SEC, but if expected passenger loads for the Alabama game are an indicator, the SEC has given the airport the push it needs.