By Dennis Seid | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – This much is clear: Delta Air Lines won’t be flying passengers in and out of Tupelo any longer than it’s required.
Having told Tupelo and several other cities across the country it was losing money providing air service even with federal subsidies, Delta is withdrawing service in those communities as soon as it can.
The good news, at least for Tupelo, is that two airlines recently submitted proposals to continue commercial air service from Tupelo.
SeaPort Airlines of Portland, Ore., and Air Choice One of St. Louis each sent proposals to the U.S. Department of Transportation to receive the Essential Air Service program subsidy – which Delta now receives.
In July, Delta said it could no longer serve 24 small airports across the country. Included on the list were Tupelo, Greenville and Hattiesburg.
Delta gets EAS subsidies to fly in those cities. In Greenville, it receives $1.6 million a year; in Hattiesburg nearly $1.4 million; and in Tupelo, more than $920,000.
The DOT ordered Delta to continue serving those cities until a substitute carrier could be found, asking for interested parties to submit bids, which were due Oct. 14.
In their bids, both SeaPort and Air Choice One are offering flights aboard Cessna Grand Caravan single-engine planes, which are capable of seating up to 12 passengers. However, in the passenger configuration the companies have developed, each flight can seat up to nine passengers.
In its two-year proposal, SeaPort is offering 18 weekly flights to Memphis and 26 weekly flights to Nashville for more than $2.64 million in its first year of operation and more than $2.67 million its second year.
Air Choice One’s two-year bid proposes 52 weekly flights, all to Memphis, for more than $2.3 million annually.
SeaPort projects nearly 20,000 passengers each year with its plan, while Air Choice projects 25,000.
According to SeaPort’s bid, one-way tickets to Memphis would range from $39 to $89, while fares to Nashville would range from $59 to $119.
Air Choice’s fares would range from $35 to $49, said Chad Wintizer, manager of planning and development.
Wintizer said the company saw “great opportunity in Tupelo” as it builds its network, which currently provides flights from Burlington, Ind., and Decatur, Ill., to St. Louis and Chicago. The company also submitted bids for Greenville and Jackson, Tenn., among other cities.
Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said city and airport leaders are reviewing the proposals.
“Both are interesting proposals and we’re studying them,” he said. “We’ll have some follow-up questions for them so we can compare and contrast. We can choose between them, or we can go back to the Department of Transportation and ask them that we’d like to have applications resubmitted. But we are seriously studying them and doing our homework.”
Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson said city and airport officials hope to meet with representatives of both companies the week of Nov. 7.
And while SeaPort and Air Choice One submitted bids to provide air service from Tupelo, Delta did not. In fact, Delta offered to continue flying in only four of the 24 cities, and none of the Mississippi cities were on the list.
“Delta is unable to submit bids for every community where DOT has requested proposals,” Delta said. “By the end of the year, Delta will no longer have any 34-seat turboprop aircraft in its fleet, and some of these EAS markets are not economically viable with 50-seat regional jet aircraft. Delta recognizes that carriers may be held in to markets while the Department works to find a replacement carrier. In those cases, we will work with the Department to establish interim hold-in rates for regional jet service.”
In other words, Delta will continue providing service until DOT selects a carrier.
Delta began flying regional jets from Tupelo in September.