Contour will continue to provide air service in Tupelo, connecting the All-America City with Nashville – or to a different or additional destination, if it chooses – as the U.S. Department of Transportation agreed to a 30-month contract that could pay the airline a little more than $10.1 million during that span.

“It’s a win-win situation as far as the airport is concerned,” said Tupelo Regional Airport executive director Cliff Nash. “We get to keep the airline, which has done an outstanding job, and now we have the flexibility to adjust the schedules as needed.”

Since 2009, Tupelo Regional has had air service subsidized through the DOT’s Essential Air Service program. But after several years of sub-standard service starting in 2012 with two other carriers that later withdrew, passenger totals plummeted to only 3,012 in 2015.

Tupelo went nearly six months without air service, but Contour, based out of Smyrna, Tennessee, began service in April 2016. Completing 99 percent of its scheduled flights, Contour last year totaled 19,288 passengers in Tupelo.

In its current contract, Contour provides 30 roundtrip flights between Tupelo and Nashville on nine-seat Jetstream planes, with a $4.2 million annual subsidy through EAS.

The new contract pays Contour a little more than $3.9 million a year, and it will use 18- or 19-seat Jetstreams while still keeping the number of roundtrip flights to 30.

“We’re extremely happy to keep the continuity with Contour,” Nash said. “With the ability to add 10 seats, we’ll be able to grow and provide tremendous opportunity to expand.”

But the subsidy for the new agreement will be handled differently than in the past. The new contract falls under the Alternate Essential Air Service program, in which the community has a bigger say-so with the airline. For example, in EAS, the airline would submit its invoices directly to the Department of Transportation. With Alternate EAS, invoices come to the airport authority first for review before being sent off for reimbursement.

“Alternate EAS gives the community leverage and a voice, and it gets the ear of the airline,” Nash said while emphasizing that the airport has established a strong working relationship with Contour.

The airline will continue to be paid under the old EAS contract’s terms through the end of April, when it’s expected to transition into the new contract.

“Right now we will continue as we currently are, and when the (new) contract does take effect, there definitely will be some changes in the schedule,” Nash said.

Among the expected changes is shifting more flights to days where seats are in greater demand.

“With Alternate EAS, it’s really flexible, so we’re free to work with the airline to adjust things as needed, unlike the contract between DOT and airline,” Nash said. “Contour has done a tremendous job and regained the trust of the public, and staying with them was very important.”

— Dennis Seid / Daily Journal