By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Silver Airways’ foray into Mississippi and other airports across the country has been a test of patience for many.
But the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based airline’s service – which began in October – isn’t as bad as some perceive, a spokesman for the company said.
“If you look at the controllable factors and take out the weather-related issues, our completion factor is 98 percent,” said Steve Bennett, referring to the percentage of flights completed from start to finish.
The canceled and delayed flights that have drawn complaints have partially been caused by bad weather, Bennett said.
December seems to have been a particularly rough month for the airline. During the month, 10 severe weather events impacted Silver’s service between Tupelo and Atlanta, Bennett said.
Weather delays at one of the world’s busiest airports has an effect on every airline, not just Silver. It’s a ripple effect that causes delays and cancellations across the board, he added.
According to Tupelo Regional Airport records, there were 16 canceled flights in December. In addition, the airport said 41 arrivals were delayed by 15 minutes or more and 42 departures were delayed 15 minutes or more.
The cancellations last month were as many as October and November combined. And it’s as many as Delta had last May.
But from January through September, Tupelo Regional recorded only 13 delayed arrivals of 15 minutes or more. From October to December, there have been 96.
As for delayed departures of 15 minutes or more, the airport said there were 16 prior to Silver’s service. For the last three months of 2012, there were 104.
Passenger complaints have rolled in about the delayed and canceled flights, and a recent letter to the Daily Journal blistered the airline for its service. The letter writer’s brother, trying to fly to Tupelo, was stranded in Atlanta and had to fly back to New Mexico, never making it to Tupelo.
Silver said that particular incident was an isolated, unfortunate case that it could not prevent.
“In this particular case, the flight was canceled on Saturday, and the next available flight was on Sunday,” Bennett said.
But the Sunday flight didn’t mesh with the passenger’s schedule and he wasn’t able to fly to Tupelo, he said.
Silver is three months into a two-year, $16.5 million federal subsidized plan to provide air service in Greenville, Tupelo, Hattiesburg/Laurel and Meridian. In Tupelo, it provides 18 round-trip flights a week to Atlanta. There are three flights on weekdays, two on Saturday and one on Sunday, limiting options for travelers.
Silver added Muscle Shoals, Ala., soon after it started its Mississippi routes.
All flights are aboard 34-passenger Saab 340 turboprop aircraft.
Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson said diplomatically, “An expansion into five different airport markets based out of the world’s busiest airport would be difficult for any airline.”
And those difficulties are reflected in the airport’s operations.
In the three months Silver has provided service in Tupelo, boardings are down 53 percent compared to the same period last year, when Delta Air Lines was flying.
It should be noted that Delta – which had provided subsidized service since 2009 – flew 50-passenger regional jets to Memphis.
For all of 2012, Tupelo Regional recorded 8,232 boardings, a 31 percent drop from a year earlier and the lowest total in at least 20 years.
A byproduct of that is federal funding for the airport could fall drastically.
Abramson said Tupelo Regional could drop from the primary status designation – $1 million a year – to nonprimary status – $150,000 a year – starting Oct. 1.
And in another ripple effect, the airport saw rental car revenue last year fall 30 percent, to just more than $890,000. In 2011, the airport saw more than $1.3 million in revenue. In 2010, that figure was about $750,000.
Fuel sales did rise 12.5 percent to more than $50,000, but the increase was due to a fee increase imposed on Silver in its contract.
Bennett said Silver knows it can do better and is working hard to work out kinks, and said its performance so far meets or exceeds the U.S. Department of Transportation’s guidelines.
“It shows that we’re efficient in the Southeast as well as system-wide,” he said.
For example, the numbers show 93 percent of Silver’s departures are within a 15-minute window, he said.
Abramson said all the numbers mean little to the flying public. What matters to them, he said, is that the flights are reliable, convenient and affordable.
He and Bennett agree that the message needs to be pushed that Silver should be given a chance. People are flying Silver, even if the numbers are low.
And Tupelo isn’t alone in its struggle. Boardings are down and complaints are up at the other state airports served by Silver.
“The problem is not limited to Tupelo,” Abramson said. “This is a statewide issue that four of the seven airports in Mississippi are facing. Silver management and all the airports are working together to resolve these issues.”