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Boardings down for airports around the state

Passengers are not flying out of Mississippi airports in droves. Enplanements, the transportation industry term for people boarding planes, are down in most of the state’s air facilities offering passenger service through established airlines.

And in virtually every one of those airports, administrators are lobbying those airlines for more flights into and out of them.

“It’s kind of frightening,” acknowledges Lane Rogers, director of Mid-Delta Regional Airport in Greenville.

Comparing enplanements in May 2006 with May 2007, the latest month Mississippi Department of Transportation numbers are available, MDRA has seen a decline of 17.5%. The Northwest AirLink flights that service the airport boarded 779 passengers last May, while 699 people flew out of the airport this May.

Currently, two flights a day connect MDRA with Memphis International Airport. Rogers in mid-July went to Northwest officials to get an additional flight to the airport. “A third flight would increase business,” Rogers said.

Mike Hainsey doesn’t think airlines see it that way. The executive director of Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTRA), between Columbus and Starkville, says the airlines look at the passenger load factors to determine if they need to add a flight. The higher the numbers and fuller the planes, the better the chance to land additional scheduled flights.

GTRA boardings dropped 12.03%, from 2,779 in May 2006 to 2,516 in May 2007. Hainsey expects that to turn around significantly in the near future.

Hainsey says GTR is uniquely poised to have a flight or possibly even more added. “We have a business boom around here. There has been $3 billion investment in the past three years,” he said.

From a helicopter assembly plant to a steel mill and several other projects, some of which are foreign-owned entities, Hainsey says the need for more flights in and out of the Lowndes County facility will likely mushroom as the plants reach full production.

Delta’s Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) offers three flights to Atlanta per day; Hainsey says, with all the international companies locating in the area and GTRA’s biggest customer, Mississippi State University with its myriad fliers to all parts of the globe, an additional carrier is also being sought.

Terry Anderson already has two carriers at Tupelo Regional Airport (TRA) — Northwest’s Mesaba and Delta’s ASA. Mesaba provides three flights per day to Memphis, while ASA flies twice a day to Atlanta.

Flights at TRA dropped from 3,026 in May 2006 to 2,690 in May 2007, a decrease of 10.08%.

Anderson says that TRA “has different problems facing the two airlines here,” just as every airport across the nation faces its own unique set of problems. One he says is universal for Delta- and Northwest-hosting facilities is that both those airlines are coming out of bankruptcies in which their operations, and especially flight schedules and destinations, were radically changed.

One, for example, is the choice by Northwest to add Muscle Shoals, Ala., to what was formerly a strictly Tupelo-Memphis flight. Anderson says that has affected what passengers are willing to put up with.

Add a delay on any of the legs and the schedule begins to lag, eventually causing late arrivals to Memphis and subsequent missed transfers. “A passenger will only do that once or twice,” Anderson relates. “We’re trying to impress upon Northwest we need our dedicated route back.”

A completely renovated and enlarged terminal building at TRA, a $4.833 million project, is scheduled to open in mid-August. While Anderson knows it will make traveling through Tupelo more pleasant, he doesn’t expect it to entice more people to fly from there.

“Airlines don’t care how many people they get on an airplane,” says Tom Williams. “They’re concerned with how much money they make from the people in those seats.”

Williams, president and CEO of Meridian Airport Authority (MRA), explains that two ASA flights per day connect passengers to Atlanta. He says MRA, at times, has warranted as many as four flights.

Williams also believes that if there were more flights available, there would be more passengers to fill them. “Our decrease in (available) seats coincides with our decrease in passengers,” he said.


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