By Ross Reily
Mississippi Business Journal
Central Mississippi’s airline travel choices sustained a severe blow today with an announcement by Southwest Airlines that it will cease flight service Jackson-Medgar Evers International on June 7.
Company spokesman Brad Hawkins said years of charting passenger counts at Jackson’s airport led to a conclusion the service was no longer financially worthwhile. “We saw waning demand for Southwest service in the local market,” he said Thursday, emphasizing the flight passenger numbers were significantly below Southwest’s expectations for a sustained period
“It really just comes down to the numbers. We can’t continue to operate in such a challenging environment,” said Hawkins, who acknowledged that with the merger with Atlanta-based AirTran that the carrier that once catered to second-tier markets is growing with an eye toward the nation’s largest markets.
“We are definitely focused on the larger cities. It’s where the profitability sustains our ability to serve more markets.”
Jackson, a Southwest destination since 1997, is the only legacy market Southwest is leaving. The airline said it will case sericvcein June to Key West, Fla., and Branson, Mo., both markets formally served by AirTrain.
No other current Southwest destinations are slated for closure, Hawkins said.
Unlikely to change mind
Hawkins said he could not say with certainty that Southwest would decline to consider incentives from Jackson and other Mississippi government entities to reverse its decision, but voiced doubt the airline would change its mind. “You never say never, but I think this is a structural and significant change” Southwest is making,” he said.
The airline’s 37 employees at Jackson International will be offered jobs elsewhere in the company. Southwest will not book flights to or from Jackson after June 7, he said.
“We appreciate the 16-year relationship that the airport, City of Jackson and the State of Mississippi enjoyed with Southwest and its employees,” Jackson Municipal Airport Authority CEO Dirk Vanderleest said. “Recognizing during difficult times, business plans need to be adjusted to ensure the highest libels of success, we understand that this choice was difficult but necessary.”
Vanderleest went on to say that this event does not result in the elimination of air service access to any metro area served by the Jackson airport.
Jackson will lose direct air service to Houston-Hobby, Chicago-Midway (but retains flights to O’Hare) and Orlando, Fla.
“This is not surprising in light of the challenges facing the airlines industry in general and Southwest in particular,” said Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, a consulting firm that has worked with the Jackson airport for several years. “They recently acquired AirTran Airways, and are finding it necessary to rework their routes and reduce the total number of airliners they are flying.”
“The fact is,” Vanderleest said, “that when Southwest acquired AirTran, they ceased being a low-cost carrier. They now have to make more money.
It is a sad day for the Jackson airport, he admitted, but said this is truly an opportunity to bring in airlines to Jackson that previously would not entertain the thought for fear of competing with Southwest.
Delta Airlines, American Airlines, which is about to merge with U.S. Air and United Airlines remain the only carriers in Jackson.