OUR OPINION: Tupelo’s air service grounded by finances

Silver Airways, the replacement for Delta Air Line’s regional service from Tupelo to Atlanta, ended a troubled 19-month run as passenger carrier of record with an official notice on Wednesday that it’s terminating service in Tupelo, Meridian, Greenville, Laurel-Hattiesburg and Muscle Shoals, Ala. Its service will continue, however, until another carrier is found.

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based airline was late on its first day of service, an omen of persistent problems involving code-sharing and connectivity with Delta, on-time arrival/departure and reliability.

An official statement from theairline’s management said the cuts are “part of its plan to strengthen operations, increase revenue, reduce costs, and better position the airline for future growth and other opportunities.”

“The next step is that the U.S. Department of Transportation will issue a hold-in-service order, which means Silver has to continue service until a suitable replacement is found,” Tupelo Regional Airport executive Josh Abramson said.

Said Silver President and CEO Dave Pflieger in a statement, “While we have been privileged to be able to serve these cities from Atlanta for the past year-and-a-half, multiple factors have combined to make it economically impossible for us to continue flying … Those facts, coupled with significantly lower than expected passenger enplanements in most of our Atlanta-network cities have made it uneconomical for us to continue serving these communities.”

In 2013, boardings at Tupelo fell to 5,190, down from 8,232 the year before and 11,961 in 2011. Five years earlier, a record 31,334 boarding were recorded, but the airport also was served by two airlines.

Abramson said Silver will continue to fly its 12-flights-per-week schedule in Tupelo.

Silver had received a two-year guaranteed subsidy totaling nearly $16.1 million to provide service to Tupelo (with a link to Greenville), Hattiesburg and Meridian.

Tupelo clearly faces daunting challenges in finding an acceptable replacement and in rebuilding a once-strong passenger base.

The unified, persistent efforts of the airport’s leadership (including board members), City Hall, state and federal political support, and the corporate passenger community in Northeast Mississippi will be required to keep passenger service for Tupelo on the map.

All airports face a strongly competitive market, and even airports once considered virtually invulnerable have experienced drastic service cuts and limiting destination choices. Tupelo must again find its niche in the regional market.