SeaPort makes another pitch

TUPELO – The chairman of the Tupelo Airport Authority says he’ll keep an open mind when SeaPort Airlines presents its case again this morning.
The airline, which is hoping its bid to provide airline service in Tupelo will be picked by the Department of Transportation, is making one last push to get its message through.
Airline officials are meeting with chairman Dan Kellum and a handful of city councilmen today at the airport at 11 a.m.
“I need to, as board chairman, listen to them and see what their strengths are and what benefits they might bring,” Kellum said.
On Monday, SeaPort met with Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and a handful of city councilmen.
SeaPort is offering seven daily flights – four to Memphis, three to Atlanta – aboard its nine-passenger Pilatus PC-12 pressurized planes.
Mesaba Airlines, which currently provides service in Tupelo with one daily flight to Memphis and one to Atlanta, is offering four packages in its bid. The biggest package is two daily flights to Memphis and one to Atlanta aboard its 34-seat Saab 340 turboprop planes.
Reed has all but said that he prefers Mesaba Airlines’ bid.
And it was Mesaba that in July said it could no longer serve Tupelo without a federal subsidy. Both Mesaba and SeaPort are seeking funds through the Essential Air Service Program, administered through DOT.
The deadline for comments regarding Tupelo air service is Monday. DOT will make its choice shortly afterward.
However, SeaPort officials say that without any kind of support from Tupelo leaders, DOT will automatically eliminate SeaPort’s bid and pick Mesaba.
“Mesaba has already said they’ll be leaving in two years, so Tupelo will be right back where they started – looking for an airline to serve them,” said SeaPort Chief Operating Officer Rob McKinney.
In fact, Mesaba said in its bid package to DOT that it will “transition to an all-jet regional aircraft fleet and all Saab 340 aircraft will be retired within the next two to three years. Accordingly, Mesaba can commit to an EAS service contract only so long as it maintains Saab aircraft in its fleet.”
SeaPort’s bid is about $1.1 million; Mesaba’s bid for three daily flights is $1.9 million.
McKinney said average one-way tickets to Memphis would be about $69. The average prices to Atlanta would be about $169.
However, SeaPort passengers still would have to buy separate tickets from a major airline to reach their next destination.
Hot Springs’ experience
McKinney said SeaPort, based in Portland, Ore., has always delivered on its promises to the other communities it serves.
In addition to service in the Pacific Northwest, it also provides four Arkansas cities air service to Memphis.
Among them is Hot Springs, which lost its Air Midwest flights nearly two years ago.
SeaPort began its Hot Springs-to-Memphis service Oct. 28, but traffic has been slow.
“They’ve just gotten off the ground, but boardings have been very light,” said George Downie, director of Hot Springs Memorial Airport. “We haven’t had any issues with SeaPort, but we just have to get the word out.”
Through Nov. 30, the airline has seen 29 passengers in Hot Springs.
Downie admits that the city preferred round-trip flights to Dallas, since Hot Springs is a key destination for tourists from Texas. But SeaPort’s bid was to Memphis, a destination not necessarily on the top of the list.
And coincidentally, Mesaba also was bidding to provide service to Memphis from the same Arkansas cities but withdrew its bid.
Mesaba hasn’t done that in Tupelo, but SeaPort officials do hope that they’ll be given a chance to present their case. It’s why they’re making this one last push.
McKinney said he plans to fly airport authority and city council members to Memphis to see SeaPort’s terminal and also give rides around the area for those who don’t want to fly to Memphis.
Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal