Tupelo Airport Authority board members on Tuesday night unanimously recommended SeaPort Airlines as the next provider of passenger service at Tupelo Regional Airport, but the vote is not viewed as an unconditional endorsement or acceptance of the Portland, Oregon-based carrier because TAA directors want more enthusiasm for marketing, at least, from SeaPort.
Board members and Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson spared no discussion of the available options: SeaPort or Air Choice One, a St. Louis-based, family owned airline with a smaller route system and fewer airplanes.
Directors’ discussions unfolded with a specter of a $1 million difference between the SeaPort proposal and Air Choice One. The lower cost for SeaPort – approximately $2.5 million – would help Tupelo lower the per passenger subsidy to $200 per flight or less, a necessity imposed by the federal Essential Air Service’s budget-conscious mandate.
SeaPort, which has routes in several regions across the United States, has 23 cities in its system, and its routes feed into several hub airports, where many of its passengers make connections on other airlines with larger aircraft and longer routes.
The plain fact is, as one TAA director stated Monday night, Tupelo has its back against a wall in the air service situation.
An airline like SeaPort, which flies a nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan, is the categorical choice available. If not SeaPort or Air Choice One, the only two bidders considered, Tupelo could find itself a “dormant” airport without passenger service for the first time in more than a half-century.
TAA members also discussed at length the differences between connections to Memphis, Tupelo’s historic air hub which is in steep decline, and Nashville, a robust airport with 60 percent of its service provided by Southwest, whose lower-fare success has become an airline industry legend.
Under the plan discussed Tuesday, SeaPort would have flights to both cities, but TAA directors also discussed the possibility of flying to Nashville only, which has many more flights to all points of the map and more competitive pricing.
The Memphis airport, which was a major Northwest Airlines hub, has seen its flights steadily diminish since the merger of Delta and Northwest. It is not the long-distance travel hub it once was.
Tupelo needs commercial passenger air service. If SeaPort is finally chosen, it can succeed if the community supports it. If the flights are on time, reliable every day and get to Memphis and/or Nashville in time to make connections, it can succeed.
But if no one flies, the next option is uncertain, at best.