Sunday, December 06, 2015

Come fly with me: Easier said than done • Tupelo Regional Airport (KTUP), Lee County, Mississippi

Corporate Flight Management Inc. CEO Matt Chaifetz, center, gives Tupelo Regional Airport and City of Tupelo officials a tour of their aircraft during a proposal for air service on Monday.

TUPELO – The terminal at Tupelo Regional Airport is quiet these days, as commercial air service is no longer available.

That should change sometime next spring, following the airport board’s unanimous decision last week to recommend Corporate Flight Management to begin service. Now it’s up to the U.S Department of Transportation to sign off on the deal.

The federal agency, which will pay a subsidy to the airline to provide service, is expected to make a decision by mid-January. Service should begin 60 to 90 days after that.

But will commercial travelers fly into and out of Tupelo again?

It wasn’t that long ago that passengers were happily using commercial air service in the All-America City. From 2008-2010, O&D – origin and destination traffic or the passengers on a flight who are either boarding or deplaning at a particular stop – averaged 26,260 a year. In 2006, enplanements in Tupelo topped a record 31,000.

Granted, those were the days when Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines were providing at last three flights a day aboard either 30-passenger Saab 340 turboprops and 50-seat regional jets.

Then Delta acquired Northwest, followed by Delta choosing to leave more than two dozen smaller markets like Tupelo.

That began a downward spiral in ridership. Tupelo joined the Essential Air Service program, the program overseen by DOT that pays carriers to provide air service in communities.

Delta continued service for more than two years with an EAS subsidy, then Silver Airlines took over in 2012 for two years. Delayed and canceled flights plagued its service, but the problems worsened with SeaPort, which barely lasted a year.

Next up is Corporate Flight Management, but will it do any better than its two predecessors?

The airport board thinks so. In a letter to the Transportation Department, Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Cliff Nash wrote, on behalf of the board, that “CFM is the best option available and supports CFM’s efforts and diligence in working to ensure the air service provided will meet all the requirements of the EAS program.”

Those requirements include a $200-per-passenger subsidy cap airport leaders and CFM officials think can be met if it can manage to attract 20,100 passengers during its two-year contract.

Looking elsewhere

But can those numbers be reached?

The airport and CFM hope the twin-engine, pressurized cabin of the Jetstream CFM will lure customers back. It won’t be easy, according to some.

“I flew into Tupelo when both Northwest and Delta (pre-merger) offered service and it was great,” said Chris Tidwell. “Clearly the aviation world has changed but something has to be done, otherwise folks will continue to go elsewhere (Columbus, Memphis, Birmingham, etc) as I do. I travel at least once a month and Tupelo has not been on my radar given the recent failures.”

Both Silver and SeaPort promised reliable service but they failed miserably. Passengers were too often left stranded – in Memphis, in Atlanta and in Tupelo. Burned too many times, and with word spreading, the public’s confidence waned.

And when it did, passengers found other venues to fly.

Said Tidwell, “Interstate 22 is an awfully easy drive, and Birmingham has all the major carriers. Columbus is reliable and the service is exceptional. I am not an aviation expert, but anything short of service from one of the big four airline (Delta, American, United or Southwest ) to a hub will fail.”

There was a good deal of debate within the board about Atlanta being a preferred hub instead of Nashville. But only a single-engine plane was offered to Atlanta, and the overwhelming sentiment was the public prefers twin-engine planes, even if it meant going to Nashville instead of Atlanta.

That may help with attracting leisure travels, but for the business traveler, Atlanta still is the top choice.

“I’d like to use our airport since I fly every week, but some of these proposals do no good for business travelers,” said Hunter Bigham. “They could give away the tickets for free to Nashville or St. Louis and I still wouldn’t use the flights here.”

So what can CFM and the airport do?

The airline can’t work alone to attract passengers. It will take airport, airline, city and business leaders working together and talking about what flights work best in connecting with Nashville.

They’ll also have to work together to send the message out to a skeptical public that the third time is the charm with post-Delta air service.

And ticket pricing is important. Low introductory rates to get people to try the airline is a great idea. Then keep them reasonable – no more than $49 if at all possible.

Silver and SeaPort promised to get out in the community to garner support for their services. Their efforts were lacking.

CFM President Allen Howell said during the 60 to 90 days the company will need to get ready for service, it must set the schedule and get its pilots in place. Just as important is marketing the airline and getting the word out in the community.

“We want to be present to promote the service before we start flying,” he said. “You really need that time to let people know about the service, to let them know we’re coming, here’s the start date, here’s the pricing and just educating the public on what we have.”


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