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Airport petitioning for another flight

TUPELO — The number of commercial roundtrip flights to and from Tupelo Regional Airport is up in the air, and the clock is ticking on a decision. The airport currently offers two daily commercial roundtrip flights, but would like three.

However, air carrier Mesaba, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines that serves the Northeast Mississippi airport, 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.

Tupelo Regional Airport is asking for an additional flight as the U.S. airline industry experiences 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.

It would seem that Tupelo Regional Airport is unlikely to get an additional flight considering the current environment. However, there is a chance that the airport could land another flight, and it has some national lawmakers on its side.

Bill Mosley, a spokesperson with the DOT, said two flights is the norm, but 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.

DOT has already heard from Mississippi’s Congressional delegation on this issue. 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,”

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.

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 (RFP) to all scheduled carriers and institute a carrier-selection proceeding. Again, the incumbent could not 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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