A Guarantee for More Flights Out of Columbia Regional Airport
Recently, Columbia city officials announced that they were coming to a deal with American Airlines for a possible third destination for travelers leaving Columbia Regional Airport (the airport currently has flights to Chicago and Dallas). While the exact details of the agreement had not been released at the time this article was written, it seems likely that an extension of the soon-to-expire $3 million revenue guarantee would be part of the deal.
The revenue guarantee was part of the deal that brought American Airlines to Columbia, and prompted Delta’s departure. The idea is simple: American Airlines is guaranteed a certain amount of revenue from flights out of Columbia. If that revenue level is not reached, the city of Columbia and other regional supporters have to pay the difference. It was supposed to give American Airlines the incentive to test the Columbia market. The new service, if successful, would be profitable enough to convince the airline to operate following the expiration of the guarantee.
There is good reason to be skeptical of this government interference in the commercial aviation market. First, it transfers risk from the private company (which raises the expected value, and hence their incentive to service the route) to taxpayers who may or may not ever use the airport. Second, a revenue guarantee can make it difficult for a competitor to enter the market without the same type of risk reduction. Delta Airlines left the Columbia market for precisely this issue. Third, a revenue guarantee can be difficult to take away without risking service reduction. This is because even if American rarely (if ever) uses the revenue guarantee the insurance that the guarantee provides is part of the financial equation that determines the amount of service.
But ending the revenue guarantee is no easy choice. Small airports across the country are having trouble attracting air service, as national airlines consolidate and reduce less profitable routes (a practice known as “capacity discipline”). Cities without regular flights are at a distinct disadvantage in attracting businesses and residents.
However, Columbia Regional Airport would likely be able to attract airlines without the guarantee, as it did before the city wooed American Airlines. The real issue is how many routes and where the routes would go. City officials have long had grand designs to expand the airport’s reach to the west, build a new terminal, and massively increase total passengers. They were, when they were chasing American Airlines, and likely will remain unwilling to let the private market interfere with realizing those goals. Residents will have to decide if city leaders’ goals are worth subsidizing the airlines and interfering in the transportation market.