OUR OPINION: Tupelo Regional faces a new service challenge

The Tupelo Airport Authority finds itself again in the unenviable position of seeking to find and stabilize passenger service, this time in response to Silver Airways’ April announcement that it would end its subsidized service to Tupelo.

Silver, headquartered in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, began serving Tupelo under the federal Essential Air Service Program almost two years ago after Delta Air Lines ended its subsidized jet flights between Tupelo and Atlanta.

Neither Delta nor Silver could make enough money, given passengers and revenue generated in Tupelo, to make a go of it.

Silver provided service between Atlanta and five communities in Mississippi and Alabama: Muscle Shoals, Alabama (MSL); Greenville, Mississippi (GLH); Laurel/Hattiesburg, Mississippi (PIB); Tupelo, Mississippi (TUP); and Meridian, Mississippi (MEI).

Silver is retaining part of its Atlanta-based regional service with flights between Atlanta and Macon, Georgia; Orlando, Florida (MCO), and between Atlanta and Greenbrier/Lewisburg, West Virginia (LWB).

Tupelo Regional, which enplaned 31,000 passengers in 2006, has declined steadily in the uncertainty of Silver’s service. Airport executive director Josh Abramson correctly said his priority is “recovery” for the airport.

“My largest priority in the selection of air service is recovery,” Abramson said. “Tupelo’s market, along with the rest of the airports served by Silver, has been decimated because of the poor service record it has had in our communities.”

Four airlines – Aerodynamics Inc., Air Choice One, SeaPort Airlines and Sun Air – indicated they want an EAS subsidy contract to serve Tupelo, but one of the firms, Aerodynamics, has financial requirements that make it unaffordable.

Air Choice One, SeaPort Airlines and Sun Air all submitted bids two years ago. All those airlines fly aircraft much smaller than the 34-passenger prop planes flown by Silver or the regional jets used by Delta.

Cessna Grand Caravans or Piper Chieftains to either Memphis or Nashville appear to be the available choices in the remaining bidders.

Tupelo is not dealing from a position of strength, and it must hold EAS subsidy requirements to $200 per passenger or below, lower than the subsidy Silver has and lower than what Aerodynamics Inc. would require.

Abramson said any carrier that replaces Silver has to be customer-focused.

Reliable service from the beginning of a new contract and a different airline would have a much better chance for success, even for single-engine passenger aircraft, if the airplanes fly on time most of the time.

Many other cities have reliable service with airlines using single-engine craft identical to or similar to the ones that would fly into and out of Tupelo. Adjustments may be necessary within Tupelo’s passenger base when new service is assured.