Friday, July 20, 2012

Sixteen Memphis area mayors map strategy to build air service

 Greater Memphis mayors formed a united front Friday against further declines in passenger service at Memphis International Airport.

In a rare example of regional cooperation, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton convened 15 other mayors from eight counties to map strategy to preserve the airport's viability as an economic development tool.

After a closed-door luncheon with Wharton's aviation economics consultant, Wharton described the meeting as a starting point and said others would follow.

"We need to realize what the market forces are and see if we can get together and do something about the market forces," Wharton said.

Brian Campbell, chairman of Campbell-Hill Aviation Group LLC, outlined a strategic action plan that ranges from preserving what's left of Delta Air Lines' service to recruiting additional low-cost carriers.

Olive Branch Mayor Sam Rikard said it was unprecedented for so many mayors to come together, and it reflected the airport's importance as a regional economic engine.

  "It's not just a Memphis issue. It affects all of us," Rikard said.

The airport was found to have a $28.6 billion annual impact on the region's economy in a study five years ago, largely owing to FedEx's cargo hub.

Mayors from Millington, Tunica, Bartlett, West Memphis, Oakland, Collierville, Germantown, Arlington, Southaven, Senatobia, Holly Springs, Coldwater, Atoka and Hernando also participated. Many of them attended a press briefing after the luncheon, lining up behind Wharton and Campbell.

Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority president and CEO Larry Cox and board chairman Arnold Perl, Greater Memphis Chamber president John Moore and Delta Regional Authority co-chairman Chris Masingill also attended the meeting.

Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson said strong passenger service at the airport is vital to a friendly competition among Greater Memphis's communities for new businesses, nonprofits and investment.
"There are some things that we have to come together on as a region, and this may be at the top of the list," said Johnson, who said he's particularly interested in attracting more low-cost carriers to the airport.

Campbell suggested pursuing status quo operations by Delta, which has announced plans to reduce from about 150 flights a day down to about 125 this fall.

"The first thing you have to do is support the Delta service you have," Campbell said.
He pointed out that Memphis is smaller and less prosperous than 17 out of 18 hubs that have previously failed or substantially declined. "The market is small, and there's nothing you can do about it."

The consultant also repeated an industry maxim, unpopular among Memphis consumers, that hub service and low-cost service are for the most part mutually exclusive. "If you're going to have a large scale of hub services, you're going to have a higher rate to support those hub operations," Campbell said.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald was the only mayor who spoke up when a reporter asked how many mayors had driven to Little Rock to catch a flight. McDonald said fares out of Memphis were prohibitive when a large family group traveled to an out-of-state wedding.

"I think the decision we need to make is do we want to be a hub or not," McDonald said.

Campbell also recommended surveying businesses about air travel and making sure international service is preserved. Delta has reduced the airport's flight to Amsterdam to seasonal. Campbell said the most successful hubs going forward will be those giving airlines access to lucrative international business.

Campbell said he doesn't think bashing Delta does any good, but he sees value in a public appeal such as the new campaign. Launched Thursday with the support of Wharton, it is using the Internet and social media to promote an email campaign to attract Delta's competitors to Memphis.

"Every grass roots effort can have an impact," Campbell said. "Sometimes it's the weight of the evidence and it needs to come from all quarters."


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