By NEMS Daily Journal
Round 2 of Delta Air Lines regional jet service in Tupelo started last week only an hour behind schedule, but with passengers interviewed by the Daily Journal clearly pleased with a 50-seat jet compared to the previously used Saab turboprop that could seat 34 people.
The question mark hanging over the service between Tupelo and Memphis (not Atlanta and Tupelo, as in a previous arrangement) is how long it will go on before another airline can be found to take Delta’s place under terms of a federal airport subsidy program – Essential Air Service.
Delta’s merger with Northwest Airlines, which had a long history of serving Tupelo via Memphis, changed the dynamics of air service in the region.
But so has the economy. Also, airlines have cut back domestic service and, with it, regional air service. Delta has pared its schedule between Memphis and Tupelo to 15 flights a week, which reduces scheduling choices.
However, if Tupelo travelers, and companies bringing business travelers to Tupelo, act on the opportunity to make a strong showing of seat occupancy Tupelo’s cause would be helped in the long term.
The Delta CRJ-200 that landed at Tupelo Regional Airport marked the return of commercial jet service; Delta provided jet service between Tupelo and Atlanta from June 2005 to January 2008, but dropped the flight, blaming escalating fuel prices and a reduction in its domestic operations.
Tupelo Regional Executive Director Josh Abramson told Daily Journal Business Editor Dennis Seid the last Saab for Tupelo flew out early Thursday.
The challenge is significant. The regional jets seats almost half again as many passengers as the Saab, and passenger traffic at the airport has declined in the years of uncertainty, schedule shifts and, on many occasions, complaints of unreliable service.
Delta can do better.
Tupelo must do better.
The Essential Air Service program costs $200 million nationwide, hardly a blip on the budgetary radar.
It also is a flashpoint in the larger debate of long-term reauthorization of Federal Aviation Administration funding, and much of the opposition has come from Republicans who cite what they say are unjustified costs. In some cases, they’re right.
But all politics is local to an extent, and the Tupelo Regional Airport is important to Northeast Mississippi and to Tupelo. Regonal leaders obviously will look to the congressional delegation for leadership.
Tupelo is not alone in the EAS fight. Airports in similar situations across the nation – rural mountain state municipalities, small cities in New York, and others face the same kind of pressures and make the same arguments.
Sometime soon Congress is expected to grant the 22nd funding extension for FAA; we hope it includes Tupelo.