By DENNIS SEID / Daily Journal

Air service has seen a remarkable turnaround in Tupelo the past four years under Nashville-based Contour Airlines, reaching passenger boardings unseen in a decade.

“It’s good to see so many interested in service in Tupelo,” said airport Executive Director Cliff Nash.

The current contract expires Sept. 30, and four other airlines are proposing to replace Contour, which hopes to continue its run.

Under the Alternate Essential Air Service federally subsidized program, Contour is paid by the Tupelo Regional Airport Authority rather than the U.S. Department of Transportation. The DOT still oversees the program and funds it, but the local airport authority has a little more flexibility in negotiations.

The 30-month contract signed in 2017 is valued at $10.1 million, and Contour provides 15 round-trip flights between Tupelo and Nashville weekly on 30-passenger regional jets.

Another player has emerged offering service under Alternate EAS: SkyWest Airlines. While no formal proposal has been submitted, Nash said the airline is offering connections to Houston and Chicago. A larger 50-passenger jet would be used, and the number of roundtrip fights would be 14.

SkyWest provides regional jet service between Meridian and Dallas.

As for the other three proposals, those airlines are seeking standard EAS contracts, and two companies have bid unsuccessfully before: Boutique Air and Southern Airways Express. The other company is Cape Air. All three airlines use smaller 9 to 12-seat single or twin-engine aircraft.

The Tupelo Regional Airport Authority hasn’t developed a recommendation, however. At a special called meeting Tuesday, the board voted to forward all the information to the Department of Transportation to seek its guidance.

Nash is writing a letter to the DOT detailing the bidding process and what the community wants in air service.

“Their response to our letter will indicate the direction that the board needs to head,” he said.

The airlines’ proposals aren’t detailed service agreements, but they do give an idea of what they intend to provide. However, Nash said the board is remaining neutral until it hears back from the DOT on what it prefers.

“We’re just requesting guidance from them on how to proceed with the process of the proposals and getting to a point of recommending which air service under what plan – EAS or Alternate EAS,” he said.