Columbia, Missouri: Non-Hub in the Shadow of Larger Facilities

Case Study – Hub size: non-hub | Characteristic: sustained growth, multi-airport region

COU Case Study

The Columbia-Jefferson City region is home to the major urban areas of central Missouri, with a total population of nearly 410,000 in 2019. The Columbia Regional Airport (COU) serves a catchment area with an estimated 730,000 origin and destination (O&D) passengers. COU captures only about 25 percent of its market, losing most of its potential traffic to St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) and Kansas City International Airport (MCI), each located within a 2-hour drive. Nevertheless, passenger traffic at COU has increased more than tenfold since 2008, rising to over 256,000 in 2019. COU has succeeded in replacing historic service to MCI and STL with flights from American Airlines to Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and flights from United Airlines to ORD and Denver International Airport (DEN). This has resulted in a substantial improvement in air connectivity for the region.

The Combined Columbia-Jefferson City Region

Economic Strengths

20082019NumberChange %Compound
Annual Growth Rate
Population (000s)384,892409,54424,6526.4%0.6%
Total Employment (000s)256,154274,13117,9777.0%0.6%
Per Capita Income$34,776$45,329$10,55330.3%2.4%
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)

The bulk of economic activity in the region is driven by post-secondary education. The region hosts more than a dozen colleges and universities, with the largest being the main campus of the University of Missouri. With the state capital in Jefferson City, the region also has a large government workforce.

Regional employment is shifting toward professional services. Total employment rose at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 0.6 percent between 2008 and 2019 but grew at a CAGR of 3.0 percent for the finance and insurance and real estate sectors. Since 2015, the fastest growth has been in transportation and warehousing (9.4 percent CAGR) and finance and insurance (5.7 percent CAGR).

The area’s economy features strength in several tradeable clusters, including

  • Insurance companies and related services. The region’s Location Quotient (LQ) for this sector was 4.98.
  • Financial services, including securities brokers, dealers, and exchanges; credit intermediation; and financial investment activities. The region ranks 33rd nationally in securities brokers, dealers, and exchanges. The region’s LQ for this sector was 3.64. 
  • Education, including colleges, universities, professional schools, research organizations (e.g., biotechnology and physical, engineering, and life sciences), and professional organizations. The region’s LQ for this sector was 1.74.

These are sectors that tend to have a high propensity to fly. That is, these industry sectors have a relatively high dependency on using commercial aviation as an input to their final product.

Air Service Overview

Destination AirportAirlineWeekly Seat Capacity
Weekly Seat Capacity
MCIUS Airways456


Scheduled capacity at COU rose from roughly 1,000 annual flights serving two regional destinations in 2008 to nearly 3,300 nonstop flights to three major hubs (ORD, DFW, and DEN) in 2019. Over the same period, the average seat capacity per flight grew from 25 in 2008 to 59 in 2019, driven by a broader industry trend of upgauging regional service.


COU Connectivity
Growth in the Connectivity Index at COU

The addition of service to American’s and United’s hubs significantly expanded the ability of local passengers to reach large numbers of domestic and international destinations via one-stop flights. The growth in connectivity from 2008 to 2019 facilitated sustained economic growth and increased the appeal and competitiveness of the regional economy.

Analysis of Changes in Air Service and Employment

COU’s O&D traffic is highly correlated with total local employment. However, correlation does not establish causation. That is, it is not evident whether rising total employment levels lead to more air traffic or vice versa.

The Airport, Its Economic Impact, and Regional Stakeholders

COU correlation analysis
Source: U.S. BEA (CAINC4 Tables) & Sabre O&D Data

COU is formally organized within the City of Columbia’s Economic Development Department; this reporting structure involves close collaboration with the City’s economic development operations, which are housed within a non-profit, public-private partnership called Regional Economic Development Inc. (REDI). REDI staff are involved with air service development and airport initiatives, including coordinating stakeholder support and financing. COU’s air service development initiatives have focused on improved connectivity to destinations that are both key national hubs and have direct links to Columbia businesses. This supports REDI’s “Attract, Grow, Expand” economic development strategy. Accessibility also attracts new and more diverse businesses into the region, particularly from industry sectors that are more reliant on air service, which tend to support higher-paying job opportunities. In this manner, air service facilitates not only economic growth but a high-quality economic growth that supports a higher standard of living and a more resilient economy.

COU has not had an economic impact assessment since 2012. Because airport services have changed so much since then, the 2012 assessment results are no longer applicable.

The airport and its stakeholders believe that economic impact studies can provide useful insight but may not capture the full scale of the airport’s contribution to the regional economy. The proper narrative is critical in conveying the importance and role of air service to a community.

COU Case Study – Full Report