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Tupelo airport looks for more flights, new leader

As Tupelo Regional Airport looks to add commercial flights, the airport authority board will be looking for something else — a new airport executive director.

Yesterday, the board voted out airport director Terry Anderson, a former schoolteacher and Navy combat pilot who had served as the airport’s leader since 2000. Dr. Dan Kellum, a local dentist, pilot and chairman of the board, said the board made the decision due to a lack of confidence in Anderson’s leadership.

Glenn McCullough Jr., who sits on the board, said the board felt it was time for a new direction at the airport.

“We’re looking at flying at a higher altitude,” McCullough quipped.

Margot Ganaway will serve as interim executive director while a permanent replacement is found for Anderson. Kellum said that search has already begun.

In the mean time, the Tupelo Regional Airport is working to get more commercial roundtrip flights. The airport is currently served by Mesaba, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines, which provides two daily roundtrip flights — one to Memphis and one to Atlanta. The airport would like at least three flights.

However, Mesaba says if it does not receive a federal subsidy through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Essential Air Service (EAS) program, it will no longer be able to offer any flights at all, though it has pledged to continue the flights while a subsidy is weighed by the DOT.

Landing more flights will be a challenge as the U.S. airline industry is experiencing an historic drop in the number of travelers served. Delta, which recently merged with Northwest, reported system traffic in Nov. 2009, including both Delta and Northwest operations, decreased 7.1 percent compared to Nov. 2008 on an 8.4 percent decrease in capacity. Domestic traffic decreased 4.6 percent year over year on a 4.2 percent decrease in capacity. International traffic decreased 11.2 percent year over year on a 14.9 percent decrease in capacity.

The airport, which at one point offered seven roundtrip flights, does have options outside of Mesaba/Delta, however. Kellum said the board would meet with SeaPort Airlines this week to entertain its bid to serve Tupelo. Other air carriers have also expressed interest, according to Kellum.

Bill Mosley, a spokesperson with the DOT, said a third flight is possible. He listed several options, including Mesaba/Delta combining with a smaller carrier. A change in service, he said, would require a waiver from the community. The deadline for that waiver is Dec. 21, and Mosley said the EAS would begin to work immediately on a determination.

The airport has recruited some influential supporters in their bid for more service. On Dec. 3, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) sent a letter to Susan Kurland, DOT assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, urging the agency to ensure “at least” three daily commercial roundtrip flights at Tupelo Regional Airport.

“As you know, the region has great potential for continued growth, and market analysis shows demand for higher frequency air service,” the lawmakers wrote. “Action by the department should not injure the local economy, hinder the region’s ability to maintain and expand the employment base, or limit the opportunity to attract new development.”

“We strongly support proposals that provide three un-tagged roundtrip flights per day flown with equipment comparable to that currently servicing the airport,” the letter added.

Neal McCoy, spokesperson for the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau, said commercial air service is critical to the city. It not only supports the city’s conventions and events, but also is needed by the local business community.

McCullough said “we our seeing the toughest economy in our lifetime,” but added that he sees economic growth for the region, thus a need for more flights. He maintains that there are more opportunities than challenges at Tupelo Regional Airport.

So, the eyes of Tupelo are on the EAS. Established with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, its mission is to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service.

The EAS, among its charges, has “hold-in” authority. If an air carrier wants to discontinue service to a community, it must get EAS approval. The carrier must first file a 90-day notice of its intent to suspend service. During that 90-day period, EAS tries to find a carrier willing to enter the market on a subsidy-free basis. If successful, EAS will issue a decision allowing the incumbent to suspend service, which it may do as soon as the incoming carrier begins service. If EAS is not able to secure subsidy-free replacement service, it issues a request for proposals to all scheduled carriers and institute a carrier-selection proceeding. Again, the incumbent cannot suspend service until a replacement carrier actually begins service. Under both scenarios, the incumbent carrier is eligible for compensation for being held in after the end of its original 90-day notice period.

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