Dozens of large, dead airplanes at Tupelo Regional Airport crowd the ground space formerly used by the National Guard and its helicopters, plus an aging, ill-maintained runway that’s crumbling under the standing and rolling weight of 400,000-pound aircraft it was not designed to sustain.
The runway – number 5/23 when it was in service decades ago – needs $700,000 in maintenance upgrades, but the airport authority is in a financial bind because of fast, dramatic changes in regional air service that have dealt a severe blow to passenger volume and, as a consequence, federal payments to the airport.
The defunct airplanes destined for salvage belong to Universal Asset Management, the private company that struck a deal with the airport authority two years ago to fly decommissioned aircraft to Tupelo where their usable parts and components are stripped and resold for further use by other air carriers.
The airport authority is under obligation to maintain the old runway for UAM’s use.
In the larger picture, the airport and all its infrastructure like the old runway are the property of the city of Tupelo, which has a huge financial and civic stake in the airport’s general and specific success.
When passenger volume dropped below 10,000 boardings per year in the last fiscal cycle the airport dropped from a $1 million FAA funding plateau to $150,000 per year.
The collapse of passenger boardings happened when Delta Air Lines’ regional affiliate decided to drop Tupelo from daily service to Atlanta. The airport authority and administration, led by Executive Director Josh Abramson, were powerless to stop the decision. The persuasion of other city officials, including former Mayor Jack Reed Jr., did not change Delta’s position.
The replacement for Delta service, Silver Airways, had a rocky start, but its situation is improving.
Some elected city officials have visited the airport to see the runway situation. Others have expressed an interest but have not visited.
In the changed airport situation the City Council needs to be as positively involved and supportive as it was when money was procured to build a new terminal equipped for two airlines and with bright expectations.
The airport’s situation doesn’t call for identifying a culprit but for cooperation among the City Council, Mayor Shelton’s administration and the Tupelo Airport Authority.
Tupelo Regional is a multi-million-dollar asset, and its potential cannot be allowed to diminish.