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Home Grown

Once swallowed whole by TWA, local Missouri favorite Ozark Air Lines flies again.

Even though Evans is the only holdover, fondness for the old airline runs deep. “You can talk to anybody who lives in the Midwest and they’ve flown on the airline,” William E. Boston III, manager of Columbia Regional Airport, says of the old Ozark.  Boston is a sandy-haired, decorated veteran who flew combat missions in Vietnam.  Some call the retired U.S. Air Force colonel Bill, others call him Boss, short for Air Boss, because he served in that capacity at Columbia’s annual Memorial Day airshow, a volunteer post he held for eight  years. In addition to his other accomplishments, Boston is proud to be a “veteran” of numerous flights on the old Ozark.

Such nostalgia is a result of the loyalty that many now-defunct regional airlines inspired among the communities they served, often for decades. The Ozark name has been in the air on and off since 1932, when a short-lived operation flew Stinsons between Kansas City and Springfield, Missouri. An unrelated Ozark—destined to become the airline fondly remembered by Evans and Boston—flew from September 1943 to November 1945, then languished during a period of confusing post-war regulation aimed at controlling exploding commercial air routes. Ozark didn’t reorganize again until September 26, 1950, when it flew a single passenger on an inaugural DC-3 flight between St. Louis and Chicago.

Ozark grew rapidly, adding a succession of cities to its route map in the 1950s. By 1959 it was modernizing its fleet with turbine-powered Fairchild-Hiller  FH-227s. But even though Ozark passengers could ride new Douglas DC-9s in 1966 between hubs like LaGuardia Airport, St. Louis, or Chicago, they could still climb into a rumbling DC-3 to get to Peoria, Ottumwa, or Kirksville. Eventually, Ozark became a thoroughly modern airline flying the Douglas twin jets exclusively. The carrier became so proficient in DC-9 upkeep that in the 1970s, its St. Louis maintenance facility overhauled Air Force C-9s (a militarized DC-9), and even overhauled Hugh Hefner’s DC-9, which was resplendent in gloss-black paint and a Playboy-bunnied tail.

But deregulation in 1978—and the elimination of the Civil Aeronautics  Board that had begun approving Ozark’s routes in 1950—spelled trouble ahead for many regional airlines. Ozark (which by the mid-1980s was carrying more than 5.5 million passengers a year) and its peers like Piedmont Airlines had grown rapidly. Without regulations that protected their routes from the larger carriers, the regionals found themselves competing directly with the big boys. The end finally came on October 26, 1986, when Ozark was absorbed by Trans World Airlines. Jet service disappeared in Columbia, which became a Trans World Express town, served by a handful of daily turboprop commuter flights.

“In 1978, when the airline industry deregulated, that’s when smaller communities started to suffer,” Boston says.  “In Columbia, 67,558 people enplaned here in calendar 1978, more than the population of the town at that time. In 1986, another peak year, the year Ozark was bought, there were 60,000....  Then the assets were pulled out, and routes changed a lot.”

Columbia Regional, which is owned by the city, is a 15-minute drive from town through a lush, undulating landscape of field, forest, and cream-colored rocky bluffs. When the original St. Louis-based Ozark was flying, the airport prospered; when it stopped flying, the airport businesses started to dry up as the passengers disappeared (even as the privately owned general aviation fixed-base operations got busier).

The numbers declined steadily throughout the late 1980s and fell to a “devastating” 32,740 in 1991, Boston says. In 1994 there was a sharp increase thanks to service by Lonestar, a Texas feeder that flew to and from Dallas, but after that airline left the scene fewer and fewer passengers used the airport, which reached an all-time low of 24,537 passengers in 1999.

Boston knows the numbers backward and forward and what the patterns mean for Columbia, an adopted hometown that he and many others love for its charming combination of big-city attractions—a highly-regarded state university, top medical facilities, a booming economy—and small-town warmth and convenience;  the population is about 80,000 and boasts a community of several hundred retired military folks.

After Ozark disappeared in 1986, the only alternative to riding a TWE Jetstream 31 turboprop to the St. Louis airport was to travel those same 100 miles on I-70, labeled by state officials as one of the most dangerous roads in Missouri. Because TWE’s Columbia service can be delayed whenever the weather at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport gets sloppy, many people make the roughly two-hour drive instead.

“The airport’s biggest competition is the interstate highway,” Boston explains. “Most people have come to an automatic thinking that you have to go to St. Louis to get anywhere.”

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