DENNIS SEID: Waiting for Delta to drop the other wing

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

Last week, the executive director of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus said he expects Delta Air Lines to drop its Columbus-to-Memphis connection in September.
At first glance, that move could provide a little boost for struggling Tupelo Regional Airport whose only connection is to Memphis.
GTR will be left with a Columbus to Atlanta connection only, so for those people wanting to fly out of Memphis, their choices will be narrowed.
And Tupelo stands to gain – if the fares are reasonable.
But that, as we all know, has been a big issue.
For years, passengers have rightly complained about much higher fares when flying out of Tupelo. That’s problematic, especially with a drive time that takes a little more than an hour. Too often, potential customers faced – and still do – ticket prices hundreds of dollars more to fly out of Tupelo instead of Memphis. And flying out of GTR rather than Tupelo can be much cheaper, too.
However, any boost from Delta’s elimination of the Columbus-to-Memphis flight will be temporary for Tupelo.
In 2010, Delta said it planned to eliminate its Saab 340 turboprop fleet by the end of this year – the same fleet from which passengers in Tupelo have been boarding for years.
So the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.
While passenger boardings in Tupelo have improved over the past year, they’re still not enough. Load factors – the percentage of seats with fannies in them – is the more important measure. And filling a 34-seat plane like the Saab only half-full doesn’t cut it.
Since last summer, Delta has been flying out of Tupelo only because it has received a subsidy, via the federal Essential Air Service program. Three other airports in Mississippi also participate in EAS – Greenville, Hattiesburg and Meridian.
In Tupelo, Delta has a two-year, $974,000 annual contract to provide 15 weekly flights to and from Memphis. But if Delta eliminates its Saab fleet, what will it use to serve passengers in Tupelo and other cities where it receives an EAS subsidy?
Well, there are the regional jets that seat about 50 people. But for Delta, it’s not economically feasible to fly them such a short distance between Tupelo and Memphis.
So Tupelo is waiting for the other shoe – or in this case, wing – to drop from Delta.
Which means the airline will be notifying Tupelo – and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which administers EAS – that it will have to end air service here. By law, it must give a 90-day notice and continue to provide service until a suitable replacement is found.
And with Congress looking to eliminate the EAS program in 2013, Delta would be out of here anyway.
So that leaves Tupelo with the difficult task of finding somebody to provide commercial air service. Airport officials have said a connection to Houston or Chicago would be ideal.
And, as always, convenience, affordability and reliability are key.
If Tupelo wants commercial air service, officials will have to work very hard to come up with a plan to push for it.
Or we’ll have no other choice but to drive to Birmingham, Memphis or Columbus.

Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@journalinc.com.