tupelo — The Tupelo and Lee County officials who backed an often-questioned $400,000 venture last year to bring a second airline to the Tupelo Regional Airport can now say the plan paid off.
And not a minute too late. In more ways than one, timing is everything in the airline industry. Just as the last of the $400,000 kitty was paid to Mesa Airlines to help cover financial shortfalls the company experienced during its seven months in Tupelo, the parent company’s better know regional carrier, U.S. Airways Express, has picked up where it left off.
Express will provide daily flights to Nashville while Northwest Airlink, Tupelo’s other long-time commercial air carrier, provides daily flights to Memphis.
Greg Stephens, vice president and general manger for U.S. Airways Express said it has always been the plan to bring U.S. Airways Express to Tupelo but that it took nearly two years for the company to work out a code-sharing agreement with U.S. Airways.
U.S. Airways Express is the operating name for Air Midwest, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Las Vegas-based Mesa Air Group. Mesa Airlines is one of 10 regional air carriers providing feeder service for U.S. Airways which provides service to 38 states, as well as 11 international countries, including Canada, Mexico, Italy, France and Spain. In 1997 more than 58 million people flew U.S. Airways.
Apparently the familiarity of the name, as well as the ability to tie into the reservation system of the fifth largest commercial air carrier in the country, is already showing that U.S. Airways
Express will be successful in Tupelo, Stephens said. He noted that advanced bookings for April have exceeded Mesa’s boardings for all of March: 420.
At its peak, American Eagle, the feeder service for American Airlines, was boarding more than 1,000 each month to Nashville, noted airport manager Roger Blickensderfer. He believes U.S. Airways Express will easily regain that market share.
To celebrate the start of that relationship, dozens of city and county elected officials, business leaders and travel agents joined with U.S. Airways Express representatives last Tuesday to officially welcome the first U.S. Airways Express flight into Tupelo.
Poor weather delayed the flight by nearly a half-hour, but plenty of barbecue, beer and music, combined with the excitement felt by many to have a second, well-known carrier once again serving the region, kept most of the crowd waiting inside a hangar.
As the plane taxied up to the hangar and stopped, the crowd surged to the front for a closer glimpse of the 19-seat Beechcraft. As it was pulled inside, the exiting pilots were greeted by cheers and applause.
“This is truly a historic day for the transportation opportunities in north Mississippi,” Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough told the crowd.
Rusty Roden, owner of the Travel Center in Tupelo, said for the flying public the arrival of U.S. Airways Express is truly historic. While U.S. Airways Express is not a part of U.S. Airways, and only connected by the code-share agreements, that important business arrangement makes the relationship seamless for business travelers, as well as cheaper and more convenient. Such code-share agreements were not available between Mesa Airlines and many of the airlines that served the Nashville market, making promoting the service difficult for travel agents and cumbersome for travelers.
Thanks to the agreements, Roden said the Carolinas will now be opened up more than ever.
“For this part of the state, that’s important,” he said.
Important because the furniture industry in northeast Mississippi and the Carolinas are so closely woven together that there is even talk of providing direct service from Charlotte to Tupelo during the bi-annual trade show held in Tupelo, Stephens said.
Additionally, there is even a possibility that direct service could be provided from Tupelo to Jackson and New Orleans, other cities from where U.S. Airways Express operates.
Stephens said he is so confident in the success of the service in Tupelo that a fourth flight has been added daily and that could likely increase to six flights by summer. As a further commitment to the northeast Mississippi market, Stephens said a crew base will be established in Tupelo in late May, meaning six pilots will be permanently based in Tupelo. Tupelo is also a possible location for a maintenance facility, he said.