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Capt. Bob Becton prepares for return flight.

Commuter airline starts Jackson-to-Nashville service

By JACK WEATHERLY 

The eight-seat Cessna 208 Caravan lifts off a runway on Southern Airways Express’ inaugural Jackson-to-Nashville flight on Monday.

The single-engine turboprop plane heads to the Tennessee capital, with a brief stopover in Memphis.

Takeoff from Jackson International is 9:03 a.m. The plane climbs to 9,000 feet and reaches cruising speed of about 200 miles per hour. The ride is smooth, though noisy. Earplugs, which are shown the airline’s website, are recommended.

The plane touches down in Memphis at 10:09 and taxis up to the Signature Flight Services Center, which was converted from the original Memphis Municipal Airport terminal built 80 years ago.

Smaller executive terminals are a selling point of the commuter airline. No big airports with mandatory security screening and waits for claiming baggage.

And the flights are quicker and cheaper.

A check on an airfare website Monday showed that next-day fares for Southern from Jackson to Nashville via Memphis were $286, with departure at 7 a.m. and arrival in Nashville at 9:45 a.m., compared with a 6 a.m. departure from Jackson on American Airlines, a connection in Atlanta, arrival in Nashville at 10:40 a.m. and a price of $387.

Southern Airways says its one-way fares from capital to capital start at $198.

Southaven-based Southern Airways has roots of a sort with that former Memphis Municipal terminal.

It was a hub for the original Southern Airways, which serviced Memphis along other cities in the region from 1949 till 1979. Its trademark was not renewed after several mergers ending with Delta Air Lines.

Stan Little, founder and chief executive of the express service, recognized the value of the name and registered the trademark, according to Chief Marketing Officer Keith Sisson.

The first flight was in June 2013 to Destin, Fla., now one of the destinations in what the carrier calls its Gulf Region.

The flight to Nashville resumes about 10 minutes late because of interviews with reporters (the other passengers had deplaned) and consequently arrives at 10:09.

Southern Airways bought Sun Air Express in February 2016, and has made Pittsburgh the first hub in what it calls its Mid-Atlantic Region, with plans to open a Baltimore hub in a couple of months, Sisson said.

Ten of the 12 routes are market-driven and the other two are Essential Air Service, meaning they rely in on a subsidy the federal government derives from fees collects on non-commuter airlines and foreign carriers to provide service for communities in need of such service.

Sisson said the takeover of Sun Air was done with the loss of only three jobs, leaving more than 80. The Gulf Region has 22 employees, he said.

“What we’re doing is a new model,” said Sisson, who made the Memphis-to-Nashville roundtrip leg of the maiden flight.

That model lends itself to other parts of the country, he said. “I definitely think we should look at the Austin, Texas area,” he said, adding that they are interested in the Chicago area.

And some smaller towns in Mississippi that have had trouble keeping air service are not being overlooked, he said.

Greenville and Tupelo currently have commercial service. Both were formerly serviced by SeaPort Airlines, which last week was ordered to liquidate after a Chapter 11 reorganization failed.

Boutique Air offers daily flights to Dallas/Fort Worth and Nashville from Greenville’s Mid-Delta Regional Airport. It is an EAS operation.

Tupelo, which lost service from SeaPort Airlines in April. now has Contour Airlines , which offers daily service to Nashville. This fall, the roundtrip flights by Contour, also an EAS carrier, will increase to 60 a week later this fall from 53 currently, according to the Tupelo Regional Airport. The fliers are divided equally among tourists and business travelers, an airport  spokesman said.

Starting an airline involves risk.

Mike Boyd, founder of BoydGroup International in Evergreen, Colo., said in an interview that after President Jimmy Carter deregulated the airline industry in 1978, gates were opened for entry into the regional and national markets, but a bloodbath of failures signaled an end to those ventures.

However, this is a different era and commuter airlines are a different bird, said Boyd, who has been a consultant for 33 years.

The short-haul airlines generally do not encounter the daunting odds that the jet service carriers do in competing with established airlines such as Delta and JetBlue, he said.

Of Southern Airways’ Gulf Region operation, he said, “It looks like this one has some real potential. Theoretically, this should be a barn-burner.”

Sisson said the potential market, primarily law firms, banks and other businesses, will be the core of the customer base, which was determined by extensive research.

And the future for Southern Airways?

In five years, “we’ll be international,” Sisson said.

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