OPINION: Delta could do well again in Tupelo

Putting aside for now the issue of the runway extension project and potential leadership changes related to the Tupelo Regional Airport, let’s look at a much bigger issue that looms ahead – subsidized air service.
In the next few days, the Federal Aviation Administration should inform city and airport officials which bid it has accepted to provide air service in Tupelo.
In July, Mesaba Airlines, the regional carrier that provides service in Tupelo, said it could no longer do so without a federal subsidy via the Essential Air Service Program. Mesaba is a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.
The legacy carriers such as Delta have had a bear of a time making money this decade. The Sept. 11 attacks put a severe dent in the airline industry, and record-high oil prices in recent years, along with the most severe recession since World War II, combined for a perfect storm from which the industry has yet to recover.
Yet from 2005 to 2007, Tupelo Regional saw its best years as far as boardings are concerned. People were flying in and out of the All-America City in record numbers, peaking at more than 31,000 in 2006.
It seemed things were flying high at the airport. A terminal renovation and expansion were completed, along with a runway strengthening project, adding millions more in investment.
But boardings have plummeted since then, falling under 16,000 last year. That number might not be matched this year.
Much of the drop-off has been caused by the previously mentioned industry problems. But there’s no doubt that Northwest – now owned by Delta – didn’t help itself in Tupelo.
Cutting back flights and making a connector with Muscle Shoals constituted a bone-headed move.
And when Delta was here with its subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines from mid-2006 to January 2008, it got off to a bad start and stumbled along until it left. Canceled and late flights didn’t help.
Airline passengers want reliable and affordable service. It’s not an either-or proposition.
So we learned a couple of weeks ago that Delta/Mesaba has four options for Tupelo. It can keep its current schedule, or it could provide as many as 21 flights a week.
The latter plan is the most expensive, with a subsidy costing nearly $2 million. But it’s the best choice for Tupelo, even if the flight times aren’t exactly what we would like.
An airline consultant said a few months ago that Tupelo needed at least three daily flights in order to remain viable.
Ideally, Tupelo would have two daily flights to Memphis and two to Atlanta, but that won’t be happening soon, and it’s definitely not part of any proposal.
But getting the “best” times for those departures and arrivals is critical, and city and airport leaders need everybody they can get to argue for them.
Recent history shows that people will fly in and out of Tupelo.
They just need something that is more dependable than what Tupelo has had the past three years.

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

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal