TUPELO – Mayor Jack Reed Jr. says he has flown out of Tupelo as much as he can in the past 30 years, but even he admits convenience, reliability and affordability have become issues lately.
Still, he announced Monday that he is throwing his weight behind Delta Air Lines and its subsidiary, Mesaba Airlines, which is bidding to continue air service here with a federal subsidy.
In supporting Mesaba, Reed rejected a bid from SeaPort Airlines, which brought company officials twice in the past week to make a pitch to city leaders.
“While we appreciate very much SeaPort Airlines’ proposal and their interest in serving Tupelo (and we will certainly keep our eye on their company), it is our decision to inform you that we prefer Delta Air Lines’ proposal,” Reed said in a letter to Kevin Adams of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is reviewing the bids for EAS.
In July, Mesaba said it no longer could provide service without funds through the Essential Air Service Program, prompting the bidding process.
Monday was the deadline for the DOT to receive comments from the community on their preference to provide air service in Tupelo. A decision by DOT is imminent.
SeaPort would provide four daily flights to Memphis and three to Atlanta on single-engine, nine-seat Pilatus PC-12 planes.
But in addition to the tickets to Memphis and Atlanta, passengers would have to pay for separate tickets to their next destination through a major airline.
Mesaba is owned by a major airline, passengers would avoid that additional step.
Because of that, Reed said the choice was clear.
“It’s two entirely different levels of service,” Reed said. “What we’re wanting to serve Tupelo is a reliable, convenient, affordable service … and I’m convinced that the community is just not ready to step away from one of the major airlines.”
But three years after boarding more than 31,000 passengers, Tupelo Regional will board fewer than 13,000 this year. The recession has hit the airline industry hard, and the airlines have responded by cutting capacity.
Three years ago, Tupelo had at least six daily flights, going to Memphis and Delta. Today, it has only one daily flight to Memphis and one to Atlanta.
“The schedule has never been this inconvenient, unreliable or unavailable before,” Reed said.
Yet, Delta/Mesaba is the best bet for Tupelo because of its international connections, Reed insisted.
Tupelo Airport Authority Chairman Dan Kellum agreed. While Kellum liked SeaPort’s plan and said he appreciated their level of service, he also said that he didn’t think the public was quite ready to fly with a relatively unknown airline.
But he also invited SeaPort to continue looking at Tupelo.
“I would still consider them for service, if there’s a market for it,” Kellum said. “For example, if we got three flights to Memphis, maybe they might provide service to Atlanta.”
But SeaPort officials last week said their business model is based strictly on using Essential Air Service subsidies to provide service.
SeaPort’s bid was a little more than $1.1 million, while Mesaba’s top bid is more than $1.98 million.
That “Option One” is Reed’s choice.
In his letter, Reed said “it is still our strong preference (and that of our United States Senators, our United States Congressman and our Governor) that his proposal be revised to include an evening flight from Memphis into Tupelo.
In that “Option One” proposal Mesaba would have two daily departures from Tupelo to Memphis (at 7 a.m. and 4:50 p.m.) and one departure to Atlanta (10:30 a.m.).
Arrivals from Memphis would land at 10:10 a.m. and 3:11 p.m., while one arrival from Atlanta would land at 8:49 p.m.
Reed said working to keep air service in Tupelo is the issue he’s spent the most time on since taking office in July. But the work has produced results, he said.
“It’s been a three-way conversation between the Department of Transportation, the airline and the city,” he said.
Reed said Delta has been forced to put its best foot forward in hopes of getting its bid selected, and that’s allowed the city to negotiate on its preferred flights.
Before the talks, Reed said, it was a one-way conversation controlled by the airline.
Reed expects the DOT to choose Delta, and in turn expects Delta to live up to its promises.
And when the economy improves, it’s essential that air service in Tupelo improves, Reed said.
“I believe we will be an international destination, not just a national destination.”
Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal