By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – By a unanimous vote, the five board members of the Tupelo Airport Authority recommended SeaPort Airlines to provide commercial air service to the city.
In a discussion lasting nearly two hours, the board weighed the pros and cons of SeaPort’s bid, as well as Air Choice One.
Jim Newman, who headed the aviation selection committee for the airport, had recommended the latter.
While Air Choice One’s bid was more than $1 million more than SeaPort’s proposal, Newman felt the smaller airline would be “hungrier,” spend more time setting up and market its service better.
SeaPort is offering 12 weekly round-trips to Memphis and 18 round-trips to Nashville for $2.5 million. Air Choice One’s proposal was 18 flights each to Memphis and Nashville for $3.5 million.
But the board was swayed by SeaPort’s size – serving 23 cities in nine states with 21 planes, it had economies of scale and could offer similar service at a cheaper price.
Another point in SeaPort’s favor: Greenville, as well as Muscle Shoals, Alabama, also are recommending SeaPort over Air Choice One.
The subsidized service through the U.S. Department of Transportation must cost less than $200 per passenger, and there were lingering doubts that Air Choice One could stay under that cap, despite its insistence that it could.
After the meeting, Newman said he was satisfied with the board’s decision.
“We probably couldn’t have gone wrong with either airline, they were each so similar,” he said. “I’m OK with it.”
At one point, the board had considered asking SeaPort to replace Memphis with Little Rock or Jackson, but airline consultant Mike Mooney of Sixel Consulting Group said the airline would have to consider additional costs of setting up in either city. He also said its “optimal timing” for connecting flights in Nashville likely would be disrupted.
“The trauma of losing Delta was replaced by the incompetence of Silver,” Mooney said, advising the board it should think carefully about its decision.
After that, the board voted to recommend SeaPort.
Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson and board chairman Fred Hill will send a letter to the Transportation Department recommending SeaPort. It’s up to the agency to ultimately decide.
Abramson said he hopes SeaPort can provide service by October.