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"EAS subsidy helps keep Mississippi airport open"
Monday, January 7, 2008
Subsidy helps keep airport open
By TIM DOHERTY
The Hattiesburg (MS) American
When Chelsea Lovitt decided to join a group of friends to celebrate New
Year's in Chicago, she began her jaunt close to home, flying out of
Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport.
"Usually, I go out of Jackson or New Orleans," said Lovitt, a Hattiesburg
native. "But this was more convenient, and it wasn't bad at all. Everything
went pretty smoothly."
Convenient. Close to home. And thanks to a federal program known as
Essential Air Service, Hattiesburg-Laurel's lone offering - a round-trip
flight to Memphis on Mesaba Aviation-operated Northwest Airlink - remains a
competitively-priced alternative in an area rife with aviation options.
"It stays pretty consistent," said Thomas Heanue, executive director of
Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport. "This month is up, but we're at the
whim of the traveler. Ticket prices. Where you're going. The weather.
Everything plays into it."
Especially the EAS. Without that federal subsidy, 40-year-old
Hattiesburg-Laurel likely would not be able to offer even the twice-daily
connecting flights it currently does.
Under the $110 million EAS program, the airline receives about $975,000
annually to help it remain in operation at Hattiesburg-Laurel, Heanue said.
"If you lose air service, you're done," Heanue said. "It's darn near
impossible to get it back, so it's important we keep it."
Mark Mitchell, a former Hattiesburg resident now living in Milwaukee, said
he'd hate to see Hattiesburg-Laurel lose its spot in a five-airport
constellation within 100 miles of the Hub City.
That array also includes Jackson and Gulfport in state, as well as Mobile,
Ala., and New Orleans.
"It surely would be an inconvenience," said Mitchell, just moments before
his two sons arrived to pick him up at the terminal Friday. "If you look at
it, it's really the same aircraft that you're flying in on at a lot of those
other places, so there's not a big difference there."
Mesaba flies a Saab-340 on the route, a 32-passenger, turbo-propeller plane
into Hattiesburg-Laurel, with flights leaving at 6:20 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.
"We shut the door around here at noon," Heanue said. "No need to keep (gate
and security personnel) around."
In an Internet search for a round-trip flight to Memphis, Hattiesburg-Laurel
offered the second-cheapest fare of the five sites at $277.50. The cheapest:
$234.50 out of Jackson-Evers International Airport. Gulfport, Mobile and New
Orleans ranged from $283 to $284.50.
"By the time you calculate your mileage, not to mention the value of the
time while you're driving there and back, and then the cost of parking, I
think our prices are very competitive," Heanue said.
But Hattiesburg-Laurel flights are rarely full. Based on 30 passengers per
flight, the route could shuttle a maximum of 120 passengers a day between
Hattiesburg-Laurel and the Northwest hub in Memphis. For the month of
December, a maxed-out schedule would mean 3,720 boardings.
But only 2,190 fliers climbed aboard last month, meaning the route carried
just 58.9 percent of its capacity.
Still, that's 187 more passengers than made the hop in December 2006, and
annual boarding was up slightly this year.
"The bad part of our situation is that we're so close to Gulfport and
Jackson," Heanue said.
And that proximity has led to contempt in some federal corners, such as the
Department of Transportation, which sees the EAS program as a waste of
Not so, said U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor.
"It's a condition of their willingness to service an area," Taylor said.
"And since there are folks who use (Hattiesburg-Laurel), we have supported
The program has to be re-approved every two years, resulting in a symbolic
tug-of-war every two years between the executive and legislative branches of
the federal government.
"The way I remember it, historically, (EAS) has not had much support from
any president, and typically will cut the funds," Taylor said.
Just as typically, Congress will restore the money, usually at the same
And if that's what it takes to keep Hattiesburg-Laurel humming along, that's
fine by Tonya Doup of Denver, who flies to Mississippi at least twice a year
to visit relatives in Waynesboro.
"It cost just as much to fly into Jackson, and this one is the easiest to
get in and out of," Doup said.
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