DENNIS SEID: Flying out of Tupelo faces new challenge

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

Two weeks ago, Delta Air Lines said it couldn’t fly out of Tupelo and 23 other cities unless it got more money.
Many people knew that decision was coming, so it didn’t really catch anybody off guard. After all, in 2009, Delta said it couldn’t provide service without a subsidy – and it got it. But the writing was on the wall. Or in the sky.
What happens next, however, is anybody’s best guess.
There are other issues we could talk about regarding the airport, but let’s concentrate on commercial air service for now.
Delta has a federal Essential Air Service program subsidy, a $974,000 contract that expires next July. The agreement provides 15 weekly flights between Memphis and Tupelo. The airline says it still is not enough money.
Even during the record year of boardings in 2006, when then-Northwest Airlines and Delta provided up to seven flights a day to Memphis and Atlanta, Delta wasn’t making money. Or enough of it anyway. Five years ago, some 32,000 people flew out of Tupelo Regional. Now it’s a little more than a third of that and with only three flights a day – some days only two.
The U.S. Department of Transportation soon will request bids for airlines who are interested in providing air service from Tupelo.
Two years ago Seaport Airlines submitted a bid offering four flights to Memphis and three to Atlanta a day. But the flights would be on nine-passenger Pilatus aircraft. Fine planes from what I hear, but even smaller than the Saab 340s that have been flying out of Tupelo.
I asked the company if it will submit a bid this round. The answer: “No comment.”
Which tells me, yes, it will.
Nothing against Seaport, but I don’t think its offer would fly, pardon the pun.
Essentially, Seaport is an air taxi. It will fly you from Tupelo to Memphis, but you still have to buy a separate ticket with a major airline to get to your next destination. There’s no code sharing with the big boys.
You’ll also have to buy a separate ticket to fly back from Memphis to Tupelo.
How much would it cost to use Seaport from Tupelo? We don’t know. But Seaport serves Jonesboro, Ark., and a ticket to fly in August from there to Memphis ranges in price from $51 to $101. The lowest price ticket is nonrefundable; the most expensive isn’t.
So let’s say that’s about the same rate we’d see in Tupelo. That’s on top of the ticket you need to buy with a major airline.
Would fliers be willing to fly with Seaport or any other smaller airline offering similar service? Without the code-sharing agreement, city leaders turned down Seaport’s offer two years ago and said it wanted to stick with Delta because it offered connections to major destinations worldwide.
If Seaport – or any other bidder – offers air service this time, will the city support the bid? More importantly, will potential passengers? The DOT ultimately decides because it has its hands on the purse strings. But it does accept public comment to help make its choice. Last time, Mayor Reed sent a letter telling DOT it wanted Delta and Seaport essentially was locked out.
Who else might offer air service is unknown, but we’ll find out soon. Then it’s left to the rest of us to decide whether we want to use that service or keep driving to Memphis, Birmingham and Columbus.
Contact Daily Journal Business Editor Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1579 or dennis.seid@journalinc.com.