Thursday, June 15, 2017

Memphis air service guru getting to know city, region's travel wants, needs

Chip Gentry, Memphis International Airport's new Manager of Air Service Research and Development, will be tasked with luring new flights to and from Memphis. 



Chip Gentry wants to make headlines as the Memphis International Airport official who brings back nonstop flights to places like Boston, Seattle and San Francisco.

But to do that, he’s going to have to understand the psyche of Memphis air travelers and the travel habits of people in places like Jonesboro, Senatobia and Somerville.

Gentry is the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority’s new manager of air service research and development. He's the point person for a continuing effort to grow service in the post-Delta Air Lines hub era.

He started the $103,394 job two weeks ago, following Will Livsey, whose 2½-year tenure was marked by 22 service additions. Livsey went to work for an aviation analytics firm.

Gentry is on a mission to make airlines aware of rising demand in the Mid-South market as fares trend lower.

“We’re looking to fill all the top destinations that are not served,” said Gentry, 50. “There’s a whole lot of opportunities left on the table from the dehubbing days. There’s an expanded population that can now afford to fly because of lower fares. We’re trying to meet their needs and let the airlines understand what we have.”

Gentry arrived from a similar job in Montgomery, Alabama with some knowledge of Memphis. His 23 years in the airline industry included a two-year stint at then-Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines, where he was senior manager of market planning.

The Atlanta native’s familiarity with the airport goes way back, to the days of Southern and Republic airlines.

“My dad was an original Southern Airways guy and Republic, so I’m very familiar with the Memphis hub,” Gentry said. “As a kid, we connected in here all the time when we were going places.”

Gentry found his career calling in the pages of Air Transport World magazines that his father brought home. Out of high school, he worked for a small commuter airline. A business degree from Auburn University opened the door to career stops at ValuJet, Comair, Pinnacle and Silver Airways.

Gentry said he’s excited to be part of Memphis’s continuing transformation.

In its heyday, around 2000, the airport had about 300 flights a day, primarily connecting traffic on small regional jets. Now traffic is almost entirely Mid-South residents and visitors, with 76 flights a day on larger jets.

Gentry’s first order of business was to travel with Brockman to an Airports Council International-North America JumpStart, the air service equivalent of a speed dating event.

They met with nine airlines including Allegiant, United, Southwest, Alaska, Spirit and Air Canada.

While the message for each airline is tailored to how Memphis fits into the carrier’s network, Gentry said there is a common thread.

“We want the airlines to realize we’re in touch with our region,” Gentry said. “There’s a big demand out in the regional area not only for leisure travelers, people who can fly the low-cost carriers, but also to meet their business demands.”

Research is a huge part of Gentry's job.

"We’ve got to understand what we need, why we need it and how we’re going to convince an airline that we need it," Brockman said. "That’s almost more important than the development and salesmanship.

Winning a new flight brings pressure to deliver passengers in the seats, Gentry said.

"We’re happy the airlines choose us. They're taking a risk to go with us. But the risk is truly everybody embracing them but no one flying them," Gentry said.

In Montgomery, Gentry worked on an airport awareness campaign that stressed the real cost of driving to Atlanta or Birmingham rather than using the local airport.

He has already run into similar thinking here and is compiling facts to make the airport’s case.

“Just in my first few days here, I’ve heard someone mention that they go to St. Louis to fly. Why would you go to St. Louis? It’s 283 miles,” Gentry said.

Story and video:  http://www.commercialappeal.com

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