2016 was a big year for Memphis International Airport. New flights, lower airfares and ongoing adjustments to life after the Delta Air Lines Inc. de-hubbing were the permeating themes of 2016.
In total, seven flights were added and two more were announced that won’t begin until 2017.
One of the announced destinations, a nonstop international flight to Toronto through Air Canada, is one of the biggest accomplishments of the year.
Air Canada’s return to Memphis marks the first daily international service since 2012, when the company last operated here.
One of the biggest issues the airport faced after Delta removed its hub status in 2013 was replacing the high volume of flights and destinations Delta offered, so the return of Air Canada is a huge milestone, because it offers access to more than just the Great White North.
“Memphis has been an important destination for Air Canada,” Patrick Khoury, director of sales, U.S.A. at Air Canada, said. “We simply were not able to make a profit with that route previously, but now we know for certain that we’ve got the right airplane on the right route at the right time to generate a profit.”
The return to Memphis is a part of the airline’s overall strategy to increase flights into the U.S., Khoury said.
“We know it’s going to appeal to both people on business as well as folks going on leisure holiday vacations,” he said.
Air Canada is also adding flights to and from Denver, Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio.
However, the biggest benefit to Memphians is the access that Toronto Pearson International Airport provides to worldwide destinations.
“The airport is quite literary on the cusp of becoming a mega hub, which all by itself is extraordinary,” Khoury said about the Toronto airport. “You pick the city and we’re probably going there.”
Air Canada recently added a flight to Casablanca, Morocco that marks the sixth continent the airline flies to, a feat that Khoury said only a dozen or so airlines worldwide can accomplish.
“We’re growing very quickly right now and perhaps by the year 2020, you may see Air Canada break into the world’s top 10 airlines,” Khoury said. “That growth is going to come from places other than Canada. Memphis is a good example of that and why we are so keen to tell our story to the U.S. marketplace.”
Another announced route is a Southern Airways Express flight to Harrison, Arkansas, which starts in January.
The flight might not cross any international borders, but Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said it’s still an important route because there are business connections between local companies and operations in Harrison. FedEx Corp. has freight operations there.
In addition to new routes, Memphis International also continued to reduce its fares.
“Our airfares have dropped 6 percent in 2016 alone, or the equivalent of $27 average per round-trip ticket,” Brockman said.
Since Delta decided to no longer use Memphis International as a hub, airfares have dropped by more than $150 per ticket.
“You’re not going to get lower airfares when you have a hub,” Brockman said. “There is tradeoff for having 91 nonstop destinations, which is what we had. There is a tradeoff for having 300-plus flights a day – and that is high airfares.”
Along with the new flights, some airlines have upgraded the size of airplanes used on existing routes, helping to add 9.3 percent of seating capacity during 2016, which is the equivalent of 605 seats a day.
For 2017, Brockman expects to see continued growth in passenger numbers, but at a slower rate.
“I don’t know if we can do seven new routes in 2017 – mainly because we’re an origin-and-destination market now,” Brockman said. “We have to earn and defend every route we get.”
Passengers transferring to other flights in Memphis to reach their intended destination accounted for a significant amount of traffic at Memphis International when Delta operated a hub here.
“When we were a hub, only 20 percent of our total passengers were origin and destination, the rest were what would be referred to as transfer passengers,” Brockman said.
In 2016, Memphis International Airport received the Peggy G. Hereford Award, which is given to the airport with the best marketing and communication program in North America by the Airport Operators Council International - North America.
Brockman credited the hiring of public information officer Glen Thomas, who joined three years ago, as the driving force behind receiving the award.
“In three short years we went from not having a program to being an award-winning program,” Brockman said.