Tupelo Airport Authority has issues to address, seats to fill

TUPELO – Tuesday’s firing of Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Terry Anderson came as no big surprise, but it does give the four-member board more work to do.
It also creates more unsolved issues and unanswered questions.
First, the board must find a replacement for Anderson, who served for nearly 10 years. And the board also must replace former authority member Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, who resigned last week.
Then there is the hanging cloud of why the board dismissed Anderson, whose job security was the subject of speculation for at least a week before his firing.
Without going into detail, the board said it had lost confidence in Anderson, who has hired an attorney for a likely legal challenge to the decision.
His supporters point to the $20 million that has been invested in the airport during his tenure. The runway was strengthened and widened, the terminal renovated and expanded, and passenger boardings reached record levels.
“He’s the best airport director Tupelo has ever had,” said Karl Cornwell, who was on the board that hired Anderson in 2000.
But Anderson’s critics say the airport unwisely spent $1.5 million in buying two privately owned businesses (called fixed-base operators), is having to spend additional hundreds of thousands of dollars on repairs to the terminal, faces a steep plunge in boardings, and is losing fuel sales and hangar fees to fliers who have avoided Tupelo Regional because of their dislike for Anderson.
The current board members – Jim Frerer, Bo Gibens, Dan Kellum and Glenn McCullough – have avoided publicly saying exactly why Anderson was fired.
But Frerer, Gibens and McCullough said at a special meeting of the board last week that they had lost confidence in Anderson. The trio also voted to give Anderson the chance to resign – or be fired.
Kellum and Harris voted against the measure. Harris resigned shortly after that meeting, saying the airport authority had not acted in the best interest of Tupelo.
Anderson’s firing “will do great harm to the knowledge and experience necessary to be an effective executive director of Tupelo Regional Airport,” Harris said.
On Wednesday, Harris declined to say any more about Anderson’s firing.
“I think I’ve said all I need to say,” he said.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said he respected both the decision of the board and the job that Anderson did.
By statute, the mayor appoints members to the authority and the council votes on the nominees. But the authority is not directly overseen by the city.
“I think my role, and the role of any mayor of Tupelo, is to allow the board to make decisions they think is best for the authority and to the citizens of this city,” Reed said.
Board members declined to explain why they had lost confidence in Anderson, saying that Kellum was the group’s spokesman.
Kellum did not expound but said the board had “determined the need for new leadership.”
But McCullough told the Mississippi Business Journal on Wednesday that “we’re looking at flying at a higher altitude.”

Falling numbers
Anderson’s firing comes at a critical time for the airport, which is struggling to increase traffic and revenue.
Boardings last month dropped to 841, the lowest since February 1997. At that rate, total boardings for the year should be about 13,000, the lowest since 1997.
Only three years ago, the airport recorded a record 31,334 boardings. But the airport also had two airlines and had more flights. Northwest and Delta were flying in and out of Tupelo then, but Delta pulled out in January 2008 and it later merged with Northwest.
Anderson’s supporters say that he had no control over the economy, high fuel prices and the general decline in commercial aviation.
Increasing boardings will largely depend on what airline will be flying out of Tupelo in the future.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected within a couple of weeks to pick which airline will serve Tupelo through the Essential Air Service Program, which pays airlines a subsidy to provide service.
At least two carriers are bidding. One is the current provider, Mesaba Airlines. The other is SeaPort Airlines, which will visit the airport on Monday.

What about the runway?
Also hanging over the authority – and city leaders – is the proposed extension of the airport’s runway. Closely tied to that is the closing or relocation of West Jackson Street Extended.
Anderson and Harris, who were vocal proponents of the project as well as relocation of the well-traveled roadway, are no longer around to argue for it.
Board members had voted last month to look at the project again, saying they wanted to present a unified message to the Tupelo City Council, which was divided over the issue as well.
The departures of Anderson and Harris may have helped settle that issue, at least for now. City officials have said they are willing to delay the project in order to study their options and say they can pursue federal grant money later if necessary. And some say that a runway extension isn’t needed.
Anderson’s firing has only led to more speculation of what happened – and what will happen.

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal