By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – SeaPort Airlines had hoped to begin service in Tupelo by providing flights to both Memphis and Nashville, but increased costs in Memphis has put a damper on those plans, at least for now.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation tapped the Portland, Oregon-based airline to begin service in Tupelo – as recommended by airport officials. SeaPort, perhaps in October, will take over for Silver Airways, which suffered reliability issues during its two-year run in Tupelo.
But SeaPort says the 18 weekly flights to Nashville and the 12 weekly flights to Memphis as proposed in its bid for Tupelo service may be phased in, starting with a Nashville-only link whenever service begins.
“Our issue in potentially delaying service to Memphis involves higher-than-anticipated costs to conduct business at the main terminal in Memphis International Airport,” said Tim Sieber, SeaPort’s executive vice president. “We had a plan on the shelf, ready to go from about a year ago but when we dusted it off the costs came in much higher than previously quoted.”
Sieber didn’t go into detail about those increased costs, but other reports reveal that in May, the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority proposed, and then adopted, its 2015 fiscal year budget. The budget lowered landing fees 11 percent but raised terminal rates by nearly 68 percent. The board said the increase in terminal rent was necessary to help offset the reduction in space by Delta Air Lines.
With the new budget, rates jump from $86.31 per square foot last year to $144.78 this year. That follows a 17 percent hike in 2014 when rates increased from $73.58 the previous year.
If SeaPort can’t work out a solution with Memphis before launching its service in Tupelo, then it will simply shift service to Nashville and increase the number of flights.
“If we have to do this, we hope it is only a temporary situation but cannot provide a timeline as of yet,” he said.
The Transportation Department on Wednesday announced it had selected SeaPort over Air Choice One’s proposal, awarding the carrier a two-year contract paying $2.5 million annually. SeaPort will use nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan planes.