By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The flight arrived an hour later than scheduled at 10:46 a.m. Thursday, but Ernestine Herron didn’t mind – she was back in Mississippi to visit family and friends.
And she flew in a roomy 50-passenger jet from Memphis.
“It was very nice, very comfortable,” she said. “And the people were very nice.”
The Delta CRJ-200 that landed at Tupelo Regional Airport marked the return of commercial jet service in Tupelo. Delta provided jet service between Tupelo and Atlanta from June 2005 to January 2008, but dropped the flight, blaming escalating fuel prices and a reduction in its domestic operations.
The airline announced last year it planned to retire its aging Saab 340 turboprop fleet by the end of 2011. The 34-passenger planes have long provided service between Tupelo and Memphis.
Herron said she’s flown to Tupelo many times and was glad to be on a regional jet instead of the Saab.
“Ooh, I didn’t like the other planes,” she said. “These are a lot nicer and I’m glad they’re using them.”
Tupelo Regional Executive Director Josh Abramson said the last Saab for Tupelo flew out early Thursday. The arrival of the regional jets, however, is a double-edged sword.
“They’re newer aircraft, they’re larger, more comfortable and there’s more head room,” he said. “But it has 50 percent more seats to fill up.”
With a reduced flight schedule – 15 a week, along with a federal subsidy to support that service – passenger boardings have been an ongoing challenge for the airport.
Even during Delta’s 2005-2008 run in Tupelo, a period that saw passenger boardings set records at TRA, the jets weren’t filled.
The load factor – the percentage of seats filled on a plane – is closely monitored by the industry. A 70 percent load factor or higher is considered ideal for the regional jets, but even the most popular flight in Tupelo could do no better than 65 percent during that time.
Still, replacing the smaller Saabs with the jets might provide some incentive for potential flyers to consider Tupelo.
It worked well for Crystal Jennings of Detroit, who, like Herron, was visiting family in West Point.
“There was an hour delay, but it was OK,” said Jennings, who was with her son, Cameron. “It was really nice, and it was quick.”