By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
Tupelo has eight days to work with Delta Air Lines to figure out a flight schedule everyone will find acceptable.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced late Thursday it had “tentatively selected” Mesaba Airlines – a subsidiary of Delta that provides service now from Tupelo – to continue that service through 2012.
In its order, the DOT said it would provide Mesaba/Delta a subsidy for 15 round-trips a week from Tupelo Regional.
That’s not quite the 21 round-trips the city wanted, but DOT has control of the purse strings.
The subsidy is paid via the Essential Air Service program, a $170 million program which the DOT administers.
The federal agency said it is willing to pay Delta $921,878 starting June 10 through May 31, 2012, as long as the airline provides 15 flights a week from Tupelo Regional.
The subsidy equals $681 per flight, based on a DOT formula.
Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said he would begin negotiations immediately with Mesaba.
“We’re making progress, and we’ll continue to indicate our desire for three daily flights in our conversation,” he said.
Last July, Mesaba said it could no longer fly out of Tupelo and eight other cities because it was not profitable for the airline. That set off a chain of events, including DOT ordering Mesaba to continue service for at least 90 days. After that, DOT ordered 30-day extensions as it reviewed bids from Mesaba and other air carriers seeking to provide service via EAS. Bids were due in November.
For Tupelo, Mesaba originally offered several options, including 19 weekly flights for $1.66 million, 21 weekly flights for $1.98 million and 14 weekly flights for a little more than $1 million.
Mesaba later agreed to provide 19 flights for $1.4 million, but DOT rejected the proposal, saying it exceeded the minimum level of service it thought Tupelo needed.
However, DOT noted Mesaba had already reduced its level of service before its announced plans last July.
The airline had reduced its schedule from Tupelo to only one flight to Memphis and one to Atlanta.
“This type of service limits connecting opportunities for passengers,” DOT said in its order, signed by Susan Kurland, assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs. “Furthermore, the community has a strong preference for service to the Memphis hub, with an evening flight from Memphis into Tupelo.”
But in subsidizing 15 flights, the DOT said it would “not prescribe the number of flights” to Memphis and Atlanta or the mix of flights on weekdays or weekends. That’s up to Mesaba, its parent Delta, and city and airport officials to see what that mix will be.
“It’s out of our hands,” said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the EAS program. “They’ll let us know what they decide and we’ll go from there.”
Mosley said the subsidy the EAS program is willing to pay Mesaba/Delta is less than what the airline had requested, but was deemed acceptable by the EAS staff.
In fact, in the DOT’s order, Kurland wrote “we believe this is a very fair offer to Mesaba … we encourage the community to work close with Mesaba to craft a schedule that is in their mutual best interests.”
Mosley conceded Mesaba could reject the offer and “we’d have to start all over.”
But if a schedule is worked out between the city and the airline by May 23, the subsidy would be effective from June 10 through May 31, 2012.
As for the time that Mesaba has been flying from Tupelo under orders from DOT, dating back to last July, DOT said it has agreed to pay the airline $974,131.