Unfriendly Skies Looming at MEM

The Memphis News

For all the improvements at Memphis International Airport – most notably the air-traffic control tower that just opened and the ground transportation center under construction – the picture inside MEM isn’t as uplifting.

Delta Air Lines Inc. is reducing capacity. Passenger counts are dwindling. Southwest Airlines hasn’t committed to Memphis. Airfares here are the highest in the nation. To top it off, both Davidson Hotels and the Folk Alliance International blamed – at least partially – those high fares as reasons for leaving Memphis. And while moving freight remains the airport’s strength, the facility lost its distinction as the world’s busiest cargo airport last year to Hong Kong.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom at the airport that is the city’s largest economic engine.

The Federal Aviation Administration has pumped millions of dollars into the facility’s infrastructure, including that air-traffic control tower, which is the nation’s third-tallest. FedEx has expanded its hub at the airport, keeping it as North America’s – if not the world’s – busiest for cargo. And myriad companies, especially in the biosciences, continue to cite the city’s central location and convenient FedEx drop-off times as reasons to establish distribution centers here.

Perhaps the leadership of Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority isn’t doing enough to combat the recent rash of PR hits. But no matter what airport brass does to keep MEM a Delta passenger hub while also working to lower costs and broaden options for travelers, not much can be done if Delta executives decide to de-hub Memphis – further emptying a sometimes desolate terminal. Ever since it merged with Northwest, Delta said it plans to keep existing hubs, but small-market Memphis is clearly a candidate for losing hub status, which would bring yet another black eye to the airport’s image.

No, this wouldn’t be the end of the world, as evidenced by the relative success in places like Pittsburgh and Nashville, but unlike those two similarly sized cities, Memphis doesn’t boast enough O&D (origin and destination) traffic to support the number of current scheduled daily flights.

So an airline like Southwest might come here but likely wouldn’t offer the same number of flights as some of its “emphasis” cities.

If Memphis is unable to land a bevy of new carriers to pick up the slack as the dominant carrier downsizes, more airport businesses could close, revenues could decline and airport employees could be looking for work.

It’s too early to tell if the airport is in major trouble. Thanks to FedEx, the FAA, quick connections and the airport’s biggest advantage – strategic location in the middle of the continent – air travel isn’t going anywhere.

But before losing more high-profile flights to large cities and losing more local businesses to other cities, airport officials should consider filing a new flight plan.