Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Tupelo Regional Airport (KTUP) narrows choice to two airlines

TUPELO – While Contour Airlines has proven it can provide reliable and affordable service flying passengers between Tupelo and Nashville – and as some Tupelo Regional Airport officials admit it has "restored trust in the community"  – that doesn't necessarily mean Contour is a shoo-in to continue service.

Contour is one of six airlines bidding to continue air service for another two years starting next March. The Smyrna, Tennessee-based airline has been providing service in Tupelo since April of last year, and its current two-year contract expires next spring. 

At a meeting of the Tupelo Airport Board on Tuesday, four of the airlines' bids were dismissed, leaving Boutique Air and Contour as the finalists.

San Francisco-based Boutique, which now provides service for Greenville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is making a strong push to replace Contour in Tupelo.

On Friday, Boutique officials will make their presentation to the airport board. Contour is expected to make its pitch early next week.

The U.S. Department of Transportation hopes to hear from Tupelo later this month on its preference. The DOT subsidizes air service in Tupelo for about $4.2 million a year through the Essential Air Service program.

A look at the two finalists' bids:

BOUTIQUE AIR – It is offering proposals using either eight Pilatus PC-12 or Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft.

For the twin-engine Beechcraft, Boutique is offering 30 weekly flights in four options:

Five flights daily between Tupelo and Nashville for $3.92 million
Four flights per day to Nashville as well as once per day to Atlanta for a little over $4 million
Four flights per day to Nashville and once a day to Dallas/Fort Worth for $4.23 million
Three flights a day to Nashville and twice a day to Atlanta for nearly $4.17 million

For the single-engine Pilatus, Boutique also is offering 30 weekly flights in several forms:

Five times a day to Nashville for $3.7 million
Five times a day to Atlanta for $3.7 million
Four times a day to Nashville and once a day to Atlanta for $3.71 million
Four times a day to Nashville and once a day to Dallas/Fort Worth for $3.76 million
Four times a day to Atlanta and once a day to Dallas/Fort Worth for $3.76 million
Four times a day to Atlanta and once to Nashville for $3.7 million.

CONTOUR – The company has three "service pattern" options for its next bid:

Pattern A – 30 weekly flights to Nashville
Pattern B – 24 weekly to Nashville as well as six weekly flights to Atlanta
Pattern C – 18 weekly flights to Nashville and 12 weekly to Atlanta

And no matter which pattern is chosen, Contour is asking for the same EAS subsidy: $3.932 million, some $300,000 cheaper per year than its current contract.

At the board meeting Tuesday, incoming board chairman Larry Decker said he likes what Contour has done, but wishes more seats or bigger planes were offered.

However, under the current EAS plan, nine-seat planes are the maximum allowed.

Airport executive director Cliff Nash said Boutique, "doesn't necessarily add to anything we already have." However, he said Contour, while doing an exemplary job, hasn't followed up on its pursuit of what's called Part 121 certification, which would allow the use of bigger planes. Nash also noted that Contour's initial promise of keeping a second aircraft at Tupelo in case of maintenance issues has been "a little spotty." 

"Now, they've done a yeoman's effort," Nash said of Contour. "But we've milked a 9-seat aircraft about as much as we can."

The main concern is meeting the DOT's subsidy cap of $200 per passenger in order to maintain EAS funding. With Contour, that number is now a little more than that. But passenger counts are at the highest in three years, and there's still a little room to grow. And it has to in order to meet that gap.

Boutique's choices are intriguing to some airport board members because of the Dallas and Atlanta options, in addition to Nashville. And airport officials say Boutique is willing to locate a maintenance shop in Tupelo if it's selected as the provider.

However, using an eight-seat plane will reduce the number of available seats, which won't help with the subsidy cap. Still, Boutique's offer has merits, supporters say.

Decker has long preferred Atlanta as the preferred destination, and said the airport is losing business travelers because Contour is currently going to Nashville only.

"We've established credibility with the leisure traveler, but not the business traveler," he said.

But the added option of Atlanta in one of Contour's new bids could sway him.

However, some board members think what Contour has done is enough to keep it as the provider. Why risk losing the leisure market in hopes of getting a larger business traveler market (who, statistics show, are more profitable customers for airlines) that may or may not use Boutique, they ask.

Both airlines will get their chance to answer any and all questions in the next few days, board members hope.

Nash said comments can be emailed to him at c.nash@flytupelo.com

Original article can be found here ➤ http://www.djournal.com

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