3Qs: Josh Abramson, Tupelo Regional Airport executive director

By NEMS Daily Journal

Two smaller airlines, Air Choice One and SeaPort Airlines, have submitted bids to provide commercial air service in Tupelo. The current carrier, Delta Air Lines, operating on a subsidy, did not. So, airport and city officials, who will listen to Air Choice One’s and SeaPort’s proposals on Nov. 9, must tell the U.S. Department of Transportation their choice by Nov. 21, or request more bids. The Tupelo Regional Airport also is asking for input with an online survey at www.flytupelo.com. The Daily Journal spoke to TRA Executive Director Josh Abramson about the issue.

Q. With Air Choice One and SeaPort submitting bids to provide air service in Tupelo, what’s your initial reaction to the offers, as well as Delta’s decision not to submit one?
A. I was not surprised by Delta’s decision not to submit for service. They didn’t submit to any airports in Mississippi and submitted in only four of the cities that they announced a “change in service” to the Department of Transportation. This is a continuation of their strategy of fleet and route reduction that started since Delta and Northwest merged. Tupelo is tied to Memphis, and Memphis is due to lose 800,000 enplanements. Enplanements are the number of people boarding a flight out. To bring that number in perspective, in Mississippi, Jackson-Evers International and Gulfport-Biloxi had a combined total of 878,173 enplanements in 2010.
 
Q. What are the biggest questions and concerns you have regarding the bids that have been submitted?
A. The size of the aircraft and the number of carriers that are trying to come into our region concern me. I question how many of our airport users will switch from a CRJ200 to a Cessna Grand Caravan. This issue should be helped with proper advertising and a different, more engaging, customer service than Delta typically offers. As for the numbers, I want a self-sustaining air service for Tupelo without EAS.
Because of the nature of Transportation Department RFQs (requests for proposals) for individual cities and due at separate times, not our whole region, there’s a good chance that three to five different airlines will be serving Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. That’s too many, and most of these airlines will fail without a subsidy. There isn’t enough room to spread costs throughout these small carriers’ routes and fleet.
Therefore, my questions to SeaPort and Air Choice One are:  
• You estimate anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 enplanements – what is your service doing this now? 
• What’s your long game? How do you get off of EAS and make money while serving Tupelo?
 
Q. What’s the future of commercial air service in Tupelo?
A. There will be commercial air service. What type is unknown. This is a citywide issue. The Tupelo Airport Authority is involving the city council, the mayor and the Community Development Foundation in this decision. But remember, we are submitting comments to DOT and it makes the final choice for Tupelo.