The lone dissenter was board chairman Larry Decker, who wanted more time to look at the proposals by Contour and Boutique Air.
And in an expected move, the affirmative vote for Contour also makes a change in the current service, which is being subsidized by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program.
EAS now pays Contour $4.2 million a year to fly 30 roundtrip flights a week between Tupelo and Nashville
The board’s vote today requested that Contour pursue Alternate Essential Air Service. In that program, the money still comes from the DOT, but it would funnel through the airport board to pay for the service. In theory, it gives the community – instead of the federal government – a louder voice and more flexibility in negotiating with an airline over service.
The airline also is able to fly a plane with more seats, expanding the current capacity of the service.
Airport Executive Director Cliff Nash said Contour had done an excellent job in its 18 months of service and said choosing Alternate EAS was a good decision.
“One of the benefits of going Alternate and choosing Contour is that they’re already here and they’ve regained the public trust,” he said. “One of the biggest concerns I had was getting more of the business travelers outside of Tupelo to come here, and Alternate EAS provides that by adding more seats to Nashville.”
Those extra seats should be attractive to more business travelers who can fly to Nashville and make their connections, Nash said.
Under the current EAS model, Contour is limited to flying planes with a maximum of nine seats. Contour is now flying nine-seat Jetstream planes which originally were configured to have 19 seats. With Alternate EAS, the airline will add back those 10 seats. Using a 30-passenger regional jet also is a possibility, although doing so would significantly cut the number of flights.
Contour has said under Alternate EAS it will go with the 19-seat plane option, with the number of flights reduced to 24.
The airline must stay at or below a federally mandated subsidy cap of $200 per passenger, and costs will go up with the use of a bigger plane.
Also in question is if the flights will continue to go to Nashville only or if Atlanta will be added to the mix as a destination.
“We’ll work with Contour to develop the schedule that seems best to meet the needs of the community,” Nash said. “Under Alternate EAS, you can choose which destination you want to go, the frequency of the flights and the type of aircraft to use, within reason. The main thing is you have ‘x’ amount of money that you have to make sure lasts throughout the year.”
While Contour’s bid was to continue under the current EAS guidelines for about $3.9 million for the next two years, it’s not yet known how much the airline will ask in order to provide Alternate EAS service.
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