Committee wants to fill jet
By Russ Corey
Published: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 3:30 a.m.
A significant drop in boardings for Delta Connection flights leaving Northwest Alabama Regional Airport for Memphis in July doesn’t surprise Air Services Committee Chairman Barry Auchly.
Commercial air service in the Shoals continues to be in a state of flux over a variety of factors that committee members believe is causing confusion among travelers.
“We’re sort of on hold waiting on the (U.S.) Department of Transportation,” Airport Director Barry Griffin said.
Commercial air service in the Shoals is subsidized through the federal Essential Air Service program. Gulfstream Airlines was selected to provide commercial air service, but withdrew its proposal after being unable to work out code sharing agreements with Delta Air Lines.
The U.S. Department of Transportation requested new proposals from airlines, but pulled the request after Delta announced it was pulling out of roughly two dozen more small communities. The idea was that other airlines might submit bids for the Shoals and other Southeast communities, including Tupelo, Greenville and Hattiesburg, Miss.
Then came the shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration and discussions in Congress concerning the agency’s funding. A new funding agreement called for cuts to the Essential Air Service program, which has further delayed the process of finding a new air service provider for the Shoals.
In the meantime, Delta Airlines, through its regional carrier, Pinnacle Airlines, continues to provide commercial flights to Memphis and will begin providing service on 50-seat regional jets Sept. 1.
During the discussions at Tuesday’s committee meeting, Shoals Chamber of Commerce President Steve Holt suddenly held up a large, color photo of a CRJ-200 plane with Delta colors and said, “here’s the reality. On September first, this sucker is coming into this market.
“We have 180 days to prove we can put people on this plane,” Holt said.
Griffin said the Department of Transportation is expected to ask Delta Air Lines to remain in the Shoals for another 180 days despite the fact the airline has asked to be relieved from its contract by Oct. 1.
Holt and others agree the Shoals has a unique opportunity to prove the area can support regional jet service, even if it is for a short period of time. Pinnacle will provide commercial air service until a suitable replacement is selected. Nobody knows when that will happen.
Air Services Committee members believe they should heavily advertise the new jet service.
As if convincing Shoals travelers that local air services can be more economical in some situations isn’t enough, Auchly and other members say they still encounter people who don’t know the airport exists or that it offers commercial air service.
“We have to talk more people into flying out of here,” Holt said. “We have to make people realize that we still have air service and this is the best we’ve ever had. This is make it or break it time.”
Outgoing airport director Matthew Hea theorized that if a new carrier is not found for the Shoals, Delta could ask the U.S. Department of Transportation to increase its subsidy because it costs more to operate the regional jet than the turboprop Saab 340 aircraft that are being retired at the end of the month.
Committee member Mark Blackburn agreed the new jet service should be advertised like it’s going to be here
“The focus should be: Let’s get people on this jet,” Griffin said.
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.
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