Cape's flight plans

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A 25 percent drop in boardings over the last year has Cape Girardeau Regional Airport officials desperately looking to add a fourth daily commuter flight to draw more passengers. But that depends on being able to draw on a half-million-dollar federal grant that has been sitting on the table for 2 1/2 years while the city tried to raise matching funds.

Most of the money would go to RegionsAir, the local commuter airline, to subsidize the added flight.

The grant would subsidize the airline for just one year. After that, city officials hope boardings will have increased so that RegionsAir will continue to offer the fourth round-trip flight.

Some of the grant money also would go to advertise the airport and reimburse expenses incurred by the city for the services of an airport consultant.

The city initially sought to get the needed $125,000 from local businesses that use the airport. But Mayor Jay Knudtson said the federal government now has indicated that the 20 percent local match needs to come from the city government.

Both Knudtson and airport manager Bruce Loy said the U.S. Department of Transportation may withdraw the grant within the next few months if the city doesn't provide the matching money.

City officials hope U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent can find a way to allow Cape Girardeau to use the grant money, possibly even without a local match. If that doesn't happen, the city council could consider earmarking the $125,000 in the city budget for the next fiscal year, using transportation sales tax money to pay the local share, or possibly look at using some of the city's surplus motel and restaurant tax money, Knudtson said.

Airport officials have suggested the surplus tax money as a possible funding source. But Knudtson said the council so far has restricted motel and restaurant tax spending to tourism projects.

"I think we need to exhaust some other efforts," the mayor said.

Loy said it would be a good investment for the city to spend $125,000 if it leads to boosting annual boardings to the 10,000 level.

If that happens, the city will receive $1 million a year in federal money for airport capital improvement projects, he said.

The city last reached that level in 1998 when there were 11,745 boardings at the airport, Loy said. Boardings totaled just over 9,000 in 2002, but dipped to 7,994 in 2003 and 6,486 in 2004.

Boardings reflect the number of passengers who depart from Cape Girardeau via RegionsAir, the commuter airline that formerly operated as Corporate Airlines, and the local air charter service.

The number of passengers flying out of Cape Girardeau dropped because American Airlines in St. Louis cut nearly 50 percent of its flights, Loy said. That resulted in two- to four-hour delays at the St. Louis airport for people trying to make connecting flights to other destinations, he said.

Kristi Thurman, administrative coordinator at the Cape Girardeau airport, said commuter passengers don't want to spend two hours or more sitting in the St. Louis airport.

The inconvenience makes it harder to get area residents to fly out of Cape Girardeau rather than drive to St. Louis, local airport officials said.

About 75 percent of residents of Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area who take an airline trip in a given year fly out of the St. Louis airport. Another 20 percent board planes in Memphis, Tenn. Only 5 percent depart from Cape Girardeau, Loy said.

Travelers, he said, would do well to check the fares. With some connecting flights, it can be cheaper to fly out of Cape Girardeau when travel time, mileage and St. Louis airport parking fees are included, Loy said. The Cape Girardeau airport doesn't charge for parking.

Currently, the commuter airline has three arriving flights and three departing flights from Cape Girardeau Monday through Friday. There is one arriving flight on Saturday and Sunday, one departing flight on Saturday and two on Sunday, Loy said.

The city would like the airline to add a fourth round-trip weekdays. The result would be another arriving flight at about 1:45 p.m. and another departing flight to St. Louis at about 2:15 p.m., said Thurman.

Adding a flight would reduce the time passengers must wait for connecting flights in St. Louis and ultimately should boost local boardings, Loy said. But he said he can't guarantee that an added flight would allow the city to reach the 10,000 boardings level.

Federal funding remains key to the success of airports in small- and medium-sized cities like Cape Girardeau.

The Tennessee-based commuter airline that serves Cape Girardeau depends on a federal subsidy to turn a profit. RegionsAir receives more than $990,000 a year to provide 18 round-trip flights a week to St. Louis.

The subsidy amounts to $47.50 per passenger per one-way flight, Thurman said.

Without such subsidy, a commuter airline wouldn't serve the Cape Girardeau area, Loy said.

Without a grant, the airline won't add a fourth round-trip flight, Loy said.

Coupled with the local match, total funding would be $625,000. About $50,000 would be earmarked for airport advertising, Loy said. About $540,000 would go to the commuter airline. The rest would go for planning services provided by the city's airport consultant in connection with efforts to get the fourth round-trip flight.

Even if the city comes up with the local share for the federal grant, it would take at least 60 days to put the ticket schedule in place and allow passengers to book the flight. That means a fourth flight couldn't start before May or June at the earliest, he said.

Knudtson said an added flight won't improve boardings instantly. While an added flight could help, Knudtson said the council has to be cautious about spending city tax dollars on airport operations.

"The perception within the community is that the airport is a luxury item," he said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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