Through the end of April, only 3,166 people have boarded a plane at Tupelo Regional Airport this year to fly to either Memphis or Atlanta.
That’s about 26 passengers a day. With two daily flights, that’s 13 people per flight.
For a Saab 340 turboprop – the aircraft that flies out of Tupelo – that’s not bad considering the plane is officially capable of holding 34 passengers.
But “not bad” isn’t good enough. Airlines would prefer to have more warm bodies in the seats, especially those looking to connect to international destinations. It’s where the money is.
Four years ago, Tupelo Regional flew more than 31,000 passengers. It also had two airline subsidiaries providing service – Mesaba, then owned by Northwest, and ASA, owned by Delta.
But you know the story, or at least some of the gory details. ASA/Delta provided service because it got a nice lump of money to do so. But when the money ran out, Delta left because it said it wasn’t profitable to stay in the market.
Then Mesaba/Northwest started cutting flights and changing the schedule.
And then came record fuel prices right in the middle of the Great Recession.
Now, Delta and Northwest have merged, and Delta is back in Tupelo.
But money also is back in the picture. The Essential Air Service program will provide Delta with money to subsidize its cost to fly out of Tupelo.
That is, if Delta and city officials can agree to a schedule. The U.S. Department of Transportation said late last week that it would pay Delta for up to 15 flights a week, but that the city and airline would have to work out when and where those flights would be.
Three flights is what city and airport officials say is the minimum we need at Tupelo Regional, but we’re six flights short. So things get complicated, again.
And according to airline industry consultant Mike Boyd, we can’t let up on the pressure on the airline even as it gets subsidies.
“If Delta says it needs to cancel, tell them to cancel in Nebraska – anywhere but here,” he said. “Because if you cancel for six customers here, that’s six fliers you’ll lose and who won’t come back. It adds up.”
And that’s been a problem in recent years. Cancellations have soured the flying public in Tupelo, on top of inconvenient departure and arrival times.
Ironically, Karen Zachary, Delta’s manager of network and schedule planning who attended the meeting, flew into Tupelo, but wasn’t able to fly out because there were no convenient departures. She had to go to Memphis.
As for Memphis Boyd said Tupelo Regional should see it as a partner in aviation, not a competitor. There are no such things as direct flights from Tupelo to Shanghai or Tupelo to Tokyo.
Memphis is a hub, a connector for Tupelo and other regional airports. There, passengers can go anywhere in the world. Boyd said Tupelo needs to push that message.
The leisure traveler won’t look too often to fly out of Tupelo, but a business traveler will – as long as the departure and arrival times are convenient and the service is dependable.
And that’s where Tupelo officials can keep the pressure on Delta to make sure it’s doing everything it can to earn every bit of subsidy it’s getting.
EAS requires a “minimal level of service,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect – and demand – more. That subsidy is our money.
Dennis Seid is business editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1578 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal