By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Commercial air service is no longer a convenient or reliable option for many in Tupelo.
And the numbers reflect it.
Last year, enplanements – the airline industry’s term for boardings – in Tupelo reached 5,661, a 31 percent drop from a year earlier and the lowest total in at least 28 years at the airport.
Since reaching a peak of 31,334 in 2006 – when two airlines provided service to Memphis and Atlanta – enplanements at Tupelo have plummeted 82 percent.
While the economy and airline industry consolidation and cutbacks contributed to earlier declines in boardings, the root cause of the steep decline in the past year can be chiefly attributed to delayed and canceled flights by Silver Airways.
The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based airline is being paid a federal subsidy to provide service here, but its performance has not been impressive so far.
“Silver has a poor performance record in Tupelo as well as the other areas of Mississippi it covers,” said Josh Abramson, executive director of Tupelo Regional Airport. “It’s reflected in the numbers here, Greenville, Meridian, Muscle Shoals. … We are not alone in this.”
Fifteen months ago, commercial air service for Tupelo was put in the hands of Silver after it was picked by the U.S. Department of Transportation, months after Delta Air Lines said it was ending service in 24 cities across the country.
The DOT’s Essential Air Service program had been subsidizing Delta’s service in Tupelo and the other cities until a new carrier was found.
Silver, a start-up company that has its roots in the now defunct Gulfstream International Airlines, was awarded a two-year, $16.1 million subsidy to provide air service in Tupelo, Greenville, Meridian, Hattiesburg and Muscle Shoals, Ala. Via Silver, those cities connect with Atlanta.
In Tupelo, Silver promised 18 weekly round-trip flights – with a link to Greenville included – starting in October 2012.
But it’s been anything but a pleasant flight for everyone involved.
Silver’s problems with reliability have turned off the flying public in Tupelo.
Silver Airways officials did not immediately respond to requests for comments for this article.
Abramson said the company bit off more than it could chew.
“When they started service, they pretty much doubled the size of their company; it tripled the number of aircraft they had,” Abramson said. “In trying to fill out these niche markets that Delta left, they faced a lot of challenges initially gearing up and starting service for five new cities into the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta.”
“They got off to a rough start,” he said.
Indeed, the initial Silver flight between Tupelo and Atlanta on Oct. 1, 2012, was delayed for nearly eight hours due to a weather delay.
Problems with the reservation system and the airline’s website added to the woes. And it took months before Delta Air Line’s reservation system was working in concert with Silver’s.
Delays and cancellations continued to plague the airline over the next year.
“Unfortunately, you can outrun Silver driving to Atlanta instead of flying sometimes,” Abramson said.
By the airport’s count, since beginning service in Tupelo, Silver has canceled more than 100 flights. More than half occurred in the first five months of service. During that same span, 285 arrivals were delayed more than 15 minutes and 311 departures were delayed for more than 15 minutes.
Abramson said some improvements have been made, and the airline has made efforts to resolve many of the issues.
“Silver recognized they had problems, and they have a whole new executive team that works there today that wasn’t there a year ago,” Abramson said.
He also said a federal regulation requiring pilots to spend more rest time also put further strains on Silver’s system. The company simply didn’t have enough qualified pilots to spread across its fleet.
“I’m not making excuses for Silver’s performance, but before you take in further bids, you need to access your current fleet and what you have, and your capabilities,” Abramson said. “But it wasn’t like a surprise that these regulations were coming. While they got hit with these blows, they obviously didn’t compensate.”
Falling below 10,000 enplanements for the second year in a row means Tupelo Regional must again do more with less.
The airport lost $850,000 in federal funding for this fiscal year after boardings dropped below 10,000 two years ago while Delta provided service. It will again see only $150,000 for the next fiscal year. However, Abramson said he’s been able to secure $350,000 in other federal funding not tied to the enplanements figures.
Another ripple effect of the drop in boardings is on auxiliary businesses at the airport. Rental car revenue fell 22 percent last year.
There was a little good news, however – aviation fuel sales increased nearly 6 percent.
Still, its Silver’s performance issues that need to be resolved if Tupelo Regional wants the public to continue flying from the facility.
Abramson said he communicates regularly with Silver on a variety of issues. Administrative issues are typically taken care of within a day’s time.
“Just when I have questions about operations, I still don’t quite get the answers I’m looking for,” he said.
With the problems airport officials and passengers have endured the past 15 months, the future is uncertain. Silver’s contract expires in October, but the Transportation Department will begin the bid process in a few weeks.
It’s not clear who will bid to provide service, or if Silver will be in the mix again.
“I don’t know if they’ll re-bid, because if they continue having these pilot shortcomings, I don’t see that turning around quickly,” Abramson said.
“We should start the RFP process in late February, early March, and we’ll talk to some airlines and I’m sure we’ll have visits from some airlines. Some of the carriers might be from last time – Sea Port Airlines, Air Choice One. … maybe Silver, I’m not sure.”
Silver has been using 34-seat Saab 340 turboprop planes. Sea Port and Air Choice One offered flights on smaller single-engine planes in previous proposals.
“That’s probably what you’ll have to choose from – the Saab, or up to a 10-seater, to Nashville and/or Memphis on the lines of service that will be offered,” Abramson said.
The Transportation Department will solicit letters of support for an airline’s proposal. Abramson cast doubts on getting behind Silver again.
“I can comfortably say that if Silver doesn’t turn their operation around in the next six months during this process, the decision to choose somebody else would be a lot easier,” he said.