Home Grown

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

Air & Space Magazine

On this steamy August afternoon in mid-Missouri the temperature and humidity are both stuck at 95—it’s a wonder anyone can move at all. Yet the moment Ozark Air Lines Flight 111 from Chicago’s Midway Airport touches down at Columbia Regional Airport, there’s Brad Fraizer looking cool as a cucumber, and he’s in a hurry.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt, black slacks, banker’s shoes, and tie, Fraizer doesn’t even seem to be perspiring as he and his crew of one begin their 20-minute round of duties: stocking the galley, dumping the lavatory, loading luggage, swabbing the windshield, and boarding passengers. He’s too focused to sweat the weather. Fraizer is director of airport operations at Ozark, a year-old startup with a more-than-50- year-old name and, according to more than a few passengers, an inherited legacy of friendly Midwestern service.

But now there’s a problem in the cabin, a bit of a passengers’ revolt aboard the new 32-seat Fairchild Dornier 328JET.  The flight attendant has opened the door and deployed the steps, but no one is getting up from the seats.

“I don't want to get off,” sighs lanky Ron Watts, who has just returned home to Columbia with his wife, Teri.  He’s enjoying the air-conditioned chill, the expanse of legroom, and his wide leather seat, even the new car smell of the interior of the new jetliner. Ozark has just become his airline of choice, and he wants to linger for a few more minutes in the unfamiliar luxury.

Across the aisle Michael Shirk is smiling as he gathers up some papers. As chairman of Columbia’s Chamber of Commerce, Shirk was one of the city’s business leaders who worked to get funding for the airport improvements that were necessary before Ozark Air Lines could begin operations last year.  For Shirk—as for much of Columbia’s business community—Ozark’s success in the years to come will be important in helping the region grow.

Inside the low-slung brick terminal, big John Evans, Ozark’s manager of sales and marketing, is critically eyeing a plate of doughnuts and flask of coffee set out near the ticket counter. It’s a homey touch, but that’s okay. He wants the new Ozark Air Lines to be homey too, just like the airline of the same name that folded in 1986. Evans should know: He’s the only current employee who worked for the old Ozark a quarter-century ago, and having a chance to work for the new Ozark is a dream come true.

“February 21 [the date of the new airline’s first flight] was probably the most exciting day of my life,” says Evans. “I know that sounds silly, but to see those green and white swallows [the Ozark logo] flying again…. You know, they stand for the swallows of Capistrano, and they’re on time.”  

The genial gray-haired Evans grew up in Atlanta as the son of an Eastern Airlines pilot. Evans himself wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his poor eyesight prevented that, so he became an Eastern ticket agent in the early 1970s—just in time to get furloughed. He went back to school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and in 1976 was hired by Ozark as a station agent in Clarksville, Tennessee. He was devastated when he heard whispered reports that the airline was about to be bought by TWA. He could have stayed with TWA, but would have had to relocate and derail his wife’s career.

“[The old Ozark] was small enough that the people cared,” Evans says. “If I had a problem with a customer, a travel agent, I could pick up the phone and talk to the president of the company and he would take care of it. We were a safe carrier, it had a good reputation, it was profitable,” Evans says. “People come in and say they remember the old Ozark.”

Ozark also prided itself on its inflight service, which included food served from restaurants around the country and an extensive wine list on select flights. But the airline wasn’t always high-brow. “For lunch it might be a hoagie and Mateus,” Evans says.

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