By Dennis Seid
TUPELO – Mike Stafford stepped off Silver Airways Flight 3619 precisely at 11 a.m. Thursday. It was his first experience with the airline.
He was joined by four other passengers on the 34-seat plane, which left him plenty of room.
“It was on time, the people were courteous, the plane was clean – there just weren’t a lot of people,” said Stafford.
In a few months – perhaps by the end of the year – he and other passengers in Tupelo will be flying with a different airline on a different plane to a different hub.
Stafford’s next flight could be on a nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan or an eight-passenger Piper Chieftain to either Memphis, Nashville or Atlanta.
Would that deter Stafford from flying from Tupelo?
“No, I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” he said. “As long as they don’t lose my baggage.”
Silver Airways’ subsidized service between Tupelo and Atlanta is almost up. Two years ago, the Department of Transportation selected the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based airline, paying it a little more than $7 million for the service.
In April, Silver said it would not seek to renew its contract, a move that wasn’t unexpected.
The airline struggled from the start, and boardings at Tupelo Regional have hit 20-year lows as Silver has been plagued by reliability and service issues.
Four airlines last week submitted bids to replace Silver, and their proposals will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which awards the subsidies through its Essential Air Service program.
The department also will take into consideration comments it receives from the community.
Tupelo Regional Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson will meet with the Tupelo Airport Authority and the City Council to look at the proposals, and together, they’ll come up with a plan to throw their support behind one of the proposals.
But they’ll have to move quickly: The Transportation Department has a July 9 deadline for comments.
“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.”
What do the four airlines – Aerodynamics Inc., Air Choice One, SeaPort Airlines and Sun Air – have to offer? All but Aerodynamics Inc. submitted bids two years ago but lost out to Silver.
• The company: Aerodynamics Inc., or ADI, has its corporate headquarters in Beachwood, Ohio, but its operational headquarters is in Atlanta. It has provided service for 54 years.
ADI says it is a full-service aircraft operation in the shuttle market and is “currently expanding into full-service offerings with qualified partners.”
• The bid: In addition to Tupelo, also has submitted bids for service to Meridian and Laurel/Hattiesburg.
The company also has stipulated an “all or nothing” bid, meaning it will provide service only if it is selected for all three cities.
Aerodynamics would use 50-seat Embraer 145 regional jets for each city, connecting them with Atlanta.
“ADI will endeavor to establish a codeshare relationship with the major carriers at ATL but will additionally establish its own reservation platform that will allow ADI flights to be sold via all major global distribution systems,” the company said in its bid. “ADI will maintain its own web-based booking site as well as a reservation call system.”
For Tupelo, ADI is offering 24 round trips per week, comprised of two weekday round trips and single round trips on Saturday and Sunday. The subsidy for Tupelo would be $3.83 million and nearly $12.4 million for all three markets.
• Consider: ADI has only two jets in its fleet.
According to published reports, the company laid off nearly 90 employees in December 2012 due to financial trouble and reduced business.
ADI Chairman and CEO Scott Beale acquired the company in 2011.
Air Choice One
• The company: Multi-Aero Inc. does business as Air Choice One and is based in St. Louis. It was founded in 1979.
It currently flies from Burlington, Ind.; Chicago and Decatur, Illinois; Ironwood, Michigan; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and St. Louis.
• The bid: The company is offering four options using either nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan or nine-passenger Piper Navajo planes.
The options include roundtrip flights to Memphis only (30 or 36 round trips) or flights to Memphis and Nashville (18 round trips to Memphis and 12 to Nashville, or 18 to each city).
The subsidy, depending on the option, costs $2.9 million to $3.9 million.
• Consider: Air Choice said it has has helped revive the Jonesboro, market, where it began service in 2012.
“In less than two years, Jonesboro has gone from potential expulsion from the EAS program to completing a successful probationary period supported by Air Choice One,” the company said.
The company in February had its contract in Jonesboro extended another four years.
Shane Storz, the company’s CEO, said, “We have continued to prove ourselves. … we have grown passengers numbers in our other markets. This now shows Tupelo that a service such as Air Choice One can be successful and that the industry is changing to where our type of service might become the only option.”
Additionally, if Air Choice One also gets approval to provide service in Greenville and in Muscle Shoals, the company plans to open a hub that would be based in Tupelo. That means pilots and aircraft would be based at Tupelo Regional, Abramson said.
• The company: SeaPort is based in Portland, Oregon and began operations in 2008. It also operates in southeast Alaska with its Wings of Alaska brand.
Its Mid-South service is based in Memphis and Kansas City.
• The bid: SeaPort also has offered bids in Greenville and Muscle Shoals, but said each proposal is a stand-alone agreement for two years. It also said it would accept a four-year agreement with no increase in its annual subsidy.
For Tupelo, it is proposing 12 round trips per week between Tupelo and Memphis and 18 round trips per week between Tupelo and Nashville on Cessna Grand Caravans. The subsidy would be $2,506,436 a year.
• Consider: SeaPort employs 221 people, providing service in 21 cities in nine states with a fleet of 16 aircraft. It is adding two more aircraft this month.
“Our commitment to Essential Air Service is demonstrated by the fact that in every ‘Lower 48’ community that SeaPort serves in the EAS program, we have been reselected for subsequent terms at then of our first contract period,” said the company.
SeaPort President Rob McKinney said his company would have been a better choice at the last bid selection and said, “we re an even better choice now. Since that time we have migrated to Altea, the most advanced reservation system in the world. We have signed our first interline partner, Alaska Airlines, a dwe have plans to roll other partners this year and next.”
SeaPort operates in the main terminal at Nashville International Airport, while at Memphis International, it has its own private terminal, where it operates its EAS service with three Arkansas cities and Jackson, Tennessee.
Sun Air international
• The company: Sun Air Express, doing business as Sun Air International, is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It began operations in 2012. Its passenger bookings are handled by Pacific Wings.
A new management team was brought in late last year.
It currently provides service in Houston and Victoria, Texas; Lancaster, Pennsylvania.; Hagerstown, Maryland; and Dulles, Virginia.
• The bid: Sun Air would use Piper Navajo planes, offering 31 round trips per week between Tupelo and Memphis, comprised of five during the weekdays and three each weekend day.
It also bid on service to Muscle Shoals, Greenville and Laurel/Hattiesburg.
The subsidy would cost $2,871,083 annually for three years.
• Consider: Sun Air said it “plans to make substantial infrastructure and marketing investments should it be awarded the cities, and believes that a longer-than-normal contact length is needed to sufficiently recover those investments.”
The company also said its operating plans are based upon “having multiple back-up aircraft and an ample availability of reserve flight crews.”
It also said flights will be displayed “in all the major travel agent systems” as well as its own website.
Interline connections “are available through major travel systems, including the ability for through-checking of baggage,” Sun Air said.
Abramon said a recovery of air service in Tupelo depends on two factors: customer service and compliance with DOT mandates.
Abramson explains: “The carrier that replaces Silver has to be customer-focused. Most of the public understands that weather and mechanical failures happen, and for safety’s sake, flights may be canceled. Good customer service and helping people get to their destination regardless of the problem will bring the flying public back to Tupelo. Silver failed to do that.
“However, no amount of customer service matters if Tupelo goes above the $200-per-passenger subsidy cap. … all airports that go over that amount are out of the EAS program. We’re at $350-plus right now with Silver.”
Each of the airlines’ proposals show subsidies below the $200 cap, based on estimates.