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"Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority in the eye of a storm"
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority in the eye of a storm
Don't blame us for Delta, political appointees protest
By Wayne Risher
The Memphis (TN) Commercial Appeal
Memphis International Airport's image problem hit home for airport
commissioner Jack Sammons during a recent meeting with 500 FedEx St. Jude
The golf tournament general chairman was booed like a movie villain when he
mentioned he had just come from a Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority
"There was some definite disapproval, and these are my people. We're like
family," Sammons said.
For the authority's newest -- and youngest -- board member, the episode
crystallized public unrest over flight reductions and sky-high fares at
Memphis International Airport.
Less than two years ago, Sammons, a former City Council member and
high-mileage flier, jumped at the chance to serve.
The authority has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the community's
premier citizen boards, because of the airport's major economic impact on
Memphis, estimated at more than $28.6 billion a year.
But if reaction from Sammons' volunteers was any indication, the airport's
reputation has been taken down a notch by circumstances board members
believe are beyond their control.
The U.S. airline industry and the city's hub operator, Delta Air Lines, are
still cutting back coming out of a major economic downturn and a historic
uptick in jet fuel prices. Delta has eliminated about a third of Memphis'
flights and nonstop destinations while helping keep fares among the nation's
"The consternation that has arisen most recently is because of the
combination between declining service and escalating fares," said Arnold
Perl, the authority's longest-serving board member and only the third
chairman in its 43-year history. "You take away a big chunk of the air
service and prices spike up, it's like a perfect storm."
Nearly every commissioner agreed the authority should do more to communicate
with the public about the challenges of maintaining a passenger hub,
accommodating the FedEx world hub and as-yet unsuccessful efforts to land
significant discount air service.
A step in that direction, they said, is a public forum on airport service
issues, sponsored by the Greater Memphis Chamber, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Thursday at Christian Brothers University's University Theater.
The airport authority also has partnered with the chamber and Memphis
Convention and Visitors Bureau to host a Facebook page, My Memphis Airport,
which had attracted fewer than 150 members in its first two weeks.
In contrast, Delta Does Memphis, a Facebook group airing complaints about
Delta and other airport issues, has picked up more than 4,100 members since
it was launched a month ago by urban issues blogger Tom Jones.
The airport authority's seven-member board of commissioners is appointed by
the city mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The county mayor nominates
two members for action by city officials. Terms are staggered and
deliberately set at seven years to last longer than the terms of the
In order of seniority, commissioners are:
Perl, 72, attorney with Glankler Brown and former chairman of the body that
oversaw FedExForum construction. He was first appointed in 1983 by former
mayor Dick Hackett and became chairman in 1996. He was reappointed in 2010
to a term ending Dec. 31, 2017.
Jon Thompson, 72, owner, Columbine Holdings Investments, former director of
Wonders: The Memphis International Cultural Exhibition, Vietnam War Army
pilot, engineer and former Caterpillar dealer. One of two pilots required to
be on the board, he was appointed by former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris
in 1988. His term runs through 2013.
Ruby Wharton, 68, principal, the Wharton Law Firm, wife of city Mayor A C
Wharton, was appointed by her husband's predecessor, Willie Herenton, in
1994. Her term expires Dec. 31.
Herbert H. Hilliard, 64, executive vice president and chief government
relations officer at First Horizon National Corp., was appointed in 2000 by
Herenton. His second term goes through 2014. The first black basketball
player at the University of Memphis, Hilliard also is chairman of the
National Civil Rights Museum board and Riverfront Development Corp.
John W. Stokes Jr., 75, managing director Raymond James/Morgan Keegan, is
also board vice chairman. Appointed by Herenton in 2004, his term runs
through 2015. Stokes is also chairman of the Riverfront Development Corp.
Jim Keras, 68, owner, Jim Keras Nissan, is a 30-year commercial pilot. He
joined the board as a Herenton appointee in 2007 and was reappointed by
Wharton last year. His term runs through 2018.
Sammons, 56, president, AMPRO Industries and volunteer chairman of this
week's PGA tour event, was appointed by interim county mayor Joe Ford. His
term expires Dec. 31, 2016. He served four council terms between 1988 and
2007 and was the city's chief administrative officer for several months in
2009 under an interim mayor.
Before the airport's turn on the hot seat, Hilliard said, "I think very few
people probably knew what the airport authority was, and most of them
probably can't name who's on there today. The people I serve with are some
of the top-notch people in the community, and I'm proud to serve with them."
"I still think the airport is a well-run airport. People forget the last
five years we've gone through a major economic upheaval in this country, not
just the airline industry, but the banking industry, the housing industry.
We still haven't dug our way out of it yet."
Although they're unpaid volunteers, airport commissioners have been targets
of accusations they receive lavish perks such as free trips.
The authority's ethics policy prohibits them from accepting such favors
personally, and travel records show commissioners pay full fares when they
travel on authority business.
They do receive free parking in an executive parking lot that's also used by
city and county elected officials and congressmen.
"A lot of people think we get to fly for free, and that is totally wrong,"
Hilliard said. "They think we get the same perks as airline employees."
"We get a place to park when we go out there to meetings and to travel,"
added Hilliard, who is chairman of the commissioners' committee of the
Airports Council International.
Thompson said members spend long hours attending board, committee and
industry meetings, poring over contracts and research documents. It's
frustrating for the payback to be charges of ineptitude.
"From what I read, it's very clear on these blogs that we are being held
responsible. I don't agree with that. I believe we need to educate people
about how the system really works."
Added Wharton: "When people get upset about something, everybody's got to
have someone to point the finger to. I think to a great extent, we have a
job to do in being more informative to the community. These are private
companies that are going to charge what they're going to charge."
Stokes said, "I'm sympathetic with the people you're talking about as far as
being upset. We do not control Delta Air Lines. The question is, do they
control us? I hope not. I don't think they do. But they, many times, are in
charge of the things that alienate the passenger. We don't dictate the
prices to Delta."
Perl sees Delta's downsizing as creating a glass half-full that officials
are addressing by seeking more competition, such as Southwest Airlines. It
will take time for a $1 million incentive fund for new service, recently
approved by the board, to attract carriers, he said.
"We're in a transitional period in passenger service, from a (Delta)
fortress hub situation to a hub or focus city, with added competition. The
process has already started with US Airways adding three daily nonstops to
Washington and with Southwest's decision to keep Memphis on its route map
after it acquired AirTran."
"We're dealing here with perceptions. The airport authority has been largely
admired throughout its history. It was the airport authority that brought
FedEx here. FedEx totally transformed this city. The FedEx piece is
critical, because it allows us to have the lowest cost structure on the
airfield for carriers of any airport anywhere in the United States."
"But landing fees are at the bottom of the food chain when airlines make
decisions these days. At the top of the food chain are fuel costs, which
trump our low landing fees."
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