American coming, just not this year: Hainsey

Hainsey speaks with Kevin Flurry, a State Farm insurance agent in West Point.
Staff Writer

American Airlines has a plan to offer westbound service from Golden Triangle Regional Airport. But it’s not happening this year, the airport’s executive director told a civic group Thursday.

“They (American) think right now their planes can make more money elsewhere. But when they come, they know they will have plenty of business,” GTRA Director Mike Hainsey told the West Point Rotary Club, citing Paccar, Airbus and Yokohama as just three companies who will be big users of westbound service to Dallas.

“Airlines aren’t adding flights right now, that’s not the structure, none of them are. They are just moving flights around if something isn’t performing. We’re in American’s plan, just not this year. But when it comes, it will be very good for the region,” Hainsey continued.

GTRA leadership has been in negotiations with American for years over westbound service. A $2 million incentive package is in place, including federal funds to help with marketing and to guarantee the company doesn’t lose money the first year. That package includes $500,000 put up by West Point, Starkville, Oktibbeha, Lowndes and Columbus if it is needed.

But Hainsey doesn’t think it’ll ever be tapped.

“American is not going to do something where it means going in and losing on the front end,” he stated.

“We just have to be patient, they are coming,” he added.

Delta Airlines recently announced a fourth daily flight from the Golden Triangle to Atlanta, putting the airport in what is known as a “real schedule” in airline industry terms because four flights a day is difficult to change. The additional flights come on the heels of another record year for passenger counts that saw flights average 90 percent capacity.

Interstate construction in Birmingham helped provide another factor. Drivers from the west trying to get to the Birmingham airport on the east side of the city now must navigate local streets or take the more crowded I-459.

GTRA is marketing in the Tuscaloosa area, luring passengers who normally would use Birmingham.

The drive to the two airports is almost exactly the same distance, but Tuscaloosa flyers are hooked by GTRA’s convenience once they try it, he noted.

The new schedule starts June 8 and “the flights will be full,” he predicted.

The airport is about to complete a $1.8 million, 5,000-square-foot terminal expansion to increase comfort and services. A future expansion would include adding a second story for even more services.

With Mississippi State the airport’s single largest user and 80 percent of its traffic coming from business travel, GTRA is the state’s third-largest airport behind Jackson and Gulfport. It also is self-sufficient financially. And 10 to 12 percent of its passengers are international travelers with Dutch, German, French and a variety of other languages often heard in the terminal.

Its traffic counts and passenger demands distinguish it from other smaller airports in the state like Tupelo, Greenville, Meridian and Hattiesburg, which are supported financially by the federal essential air service program.

Tupelo alone gets $4.3 million a year to get a commuter airline to provide service to Nashville where passengers don’t have connections to major air carriers.

“It’s subsidized, that’s how they can do it,” Hainsey told the crowd.

“Those other airports are more of a tourist thing. They serve people who just want to come and go from their community,” he described.

The airport also is embracing some other firsts. It is becoming a test center for drones, developing 12 different uses ranging from security and remote property inspections on the airport grounds to filming and scaring off animals.

“We’re getting calls from all over about how and what we are doing for insight,” Hainsey said.

GTRA also is about to start it’s own police force after using the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department for years. The addition of a fourth flight makes it more difficult for deputies to take time out of their shifts to work at the airport and then return to patrols.

Instead, the airport is going to develop it’s own certified police department similar to MSU and MUW.

“It will just be more efficient for us, and will free up two deputies for the sheriff’s department. When our officers aren’t doing security, they can be doing other things on the grounds,” Hainsey explained.