By NEMS Daily Journal
Josh Abramson has been executive director of Tupelo Regional Airport since April 2010. Last week, Delta Air Lines announced it would begin jet service again from Tupelo starting in September, replacing the Saab 340 turboprop planes with bigger regional jets commonly called CRJs.
Since July of last year, Delta has provided service to Tupelo with a federal subsidy via the Essential Air Service program, or EAS, because the carrier says it cannot make a profit without it.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of Delta returning with jet service to Tupelo in September?
A: The flyer’s advantage to air service in a regional jet is more head room, and typically there would be less flight time but there is minimum change in travel time, on such a short leg to Memphis. The airport’s FBO will benefit with an increase in fuel sales.
The challenge is filling up the seats. The Saab has 34 seats and the CRJ has 50. That’s a 47 percent increase in capacity. So let’s do some math:
Fifteen weekly round trips with 50 seats equals 1,500 people at 100 percent capacity, or 78,000 a year. In the regional market, Delta runs about a 75 percent load factor. I expect Tupelo to have around 13,900 passengers fly for the calendar year of 2011. That is a 18 percent load factor, and we’ll need a better number than that in order for Delta to make money.
Q: What is the future of commercial air service in Tupelo, considering we are included in the Essential Air Service program and Congress has voted to kill EAS in 2013? And what are the options being pursued to secure commercial air service?
A: No changes yet. The Republican-led House passed an aviation bill months ago that would phase out EAS in late 2013. The Democrat-led Senate came back with a plan to continue the subsidies but tighten eligibility criteria, disqualifying community airports close to a larger hub or with little passenger demand. The Senate’s bill, under the Coburn Amendment, could eliminate EAS participation at 40 of the 110 airports in the continental U.S. The challenge is the same – put people in the airplanes. I don’t wish for Tupelo to stay on EAS. I want a self-sustaining route or routes where airport users can get great flight service and connectivity.
The CDF and airport are working on securing commercial air service together. Regardless of the carrier, it will take commitment from Tupelo’s major employers to fly out of their airport. If they and the other fliers don’t use it, they will lose it.
Q: High fares from Tupelo have often been an issue with passengers. Why is that the case, and is there anything that can be done to make them more competitive?
A: Until recently, airfares have been $202 more to fly out of Tupelo compared to Memphis. According to our travel cost calculator on Flytupelo.com, it will cost the traveler $170 for a round-trip drive to Memphis. This is based on a $30,000 annual salary. Air fares have increased and will continue to increase for years to come.
I believe the larger issue is convenience of frequency. Some people will not schedule a flight out of Tupelo if there is a three-to-five hour layover in Memphis, especially when you can drive back to Tupelo in two hours. Also, you must consider competition in pricing. The Memphis air travel market doesn’t have much competition and is one of the most expensive airports in the nation to fly out of.