Going into the FAA certification process, Ozark Air Lines and the city of Columbia needed each other badly. “We’re screwed if we don’t have an airline like Ozark,” says Mike Shirk, who besides running Columbia’s Chamber of Commerce serves on the board of directors of Boone Hospital Center. “We are always in the top five or ten places to raise kids, do business, et cetera, but we’re not going to be a serious contender until we have our own airline. Ozark’s startup has allowed us to send recruitment letters to Dallas and Chicago and all points in the world after that…. It was a shot in the economic arm.” Shirk has increased the out-of-town per-diem rate for hospital staff—as long as the travelers buy tickets on Ozark instead of taking the long drive to the St. Louis airport.
As much as Ozark promises to help the Columbia business community, the nascent Ozark Air Lines needed help in financing such airport improvements as a new apron and site preparation for what would become a spotless, all-white 22,000-square-foot hangar plus offices. City leaders set to work with unprecedented zeal to find grants and begin the startup process.
Bill Boston was a key link. With his assistance the city got plenty of help from the FAA regional office in Kansas City, which rushed crucial federal grant applications for Ozark through Congress during an auspicious cycle of appropriations. “When I called those guys and said, ‘I’ve never done this,’ they talked me through the process,” Boston says. “We did things that airlines would take two, three, four years to do typically, and we did it in 18 months. A lot was expected of the community, the city, and a lot of other people to cooperate in the process of starting an airline. I learned a lot very fast.”
Besides getting a certificate of convenience from the U.S. Department of Transportation—proof of financial responsibility—Ozark had to work through an added layer of bureaucracy: It was one of the first passenger carriers to go through the beefed-up FAA certification process instituted after the well-publicized 1996 ValuJet disaster, in which oxygen canisters in a DC-9 cargo hold caught fire and the jet plunged into the Florida Everglades.
In January 1999, when the certification application was filed, it was time for Ellis to hire the FAA-mandated startup staff—a director of operations and a chief operations officer, a chief inspector, a director of safety, a chief pilot, and a director of aircraft maintenance. A lot of money went out but none was coming in; Ozark couldn’t even advertise until it had the certificate in hand. In fact, for months the whole operation was hush-hush. Wes Stricker put $3 million of his own funds into the airline.
Another wrinkle: Stricker and Ellis had chosen an airplane so new that it wouldn’t be certified until July 1999. When they realized they would need a small jet for Ozark the choices were few. Two likely candidates, the Embraer ERJ-145 and the Bombardier RJ 200, already served a number of feeder airlines but were too big for Ozark. That left one contender, the $12.5 million German-built Fairchild Dornier 328JET, a turbofan-powered version of the 328 turboprop commuter airliner. The comfortable aircraft proved to be a perfect fit with passengers, pilots, and the folks who pay the fuel bills. Ozark currently owns two 328s but there may be up to 10 more on the way in the near future.
Almost everyone involved in the certification process describes it as...well, they all take a deep breath and say “boot camp.” The workday stretched to 12, 16, even 24 hours as the management team developed the airline’s operations manuals. Then they had to train their new employees and lead them through a series of FAA-mandated proving flights to make sure not only that all safety procedures were in place and the employees were well-trained but that each segment of the airline knew just how to work with all the others.
Wes Stricker says, “To a man, the motivations have not been financial for the airline.” The certificate came on February 11, 2000, and 10 days later Ozark Air Lines took to the air. The airline pledged to bring 21 new jobs to the airport; so far, the tally is 75. The motivations included pride in a business community ripe for a reliable, direct jet link, a desire to revive the airport, and nostalgia for the old Ozark’s local-flavored service, all of which bound the airline tightly to the community from the first tentative steps until the first flight took off for Chicago, on February 21.
There’s no better illustration of Ozark’s deep local roots than 44-year-old Captain Randy Eckley. A job with Ozark allowed him to settle down near his extended family outside of Columbia after an Air Force flying career that took him to Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Italy, and the Pentagon.
In 1998, at a family wedding in Missouri, his newspaper-owner in-laws told him about the coming startup of Ozark Air Lines, but there was no job yet for Eckley. Instead, he kept his flying skills fresh serving as a pilot for Continental Express. In July 1999 Ozark called.