Sammons Outlines Airport Strategic Plan

By Bill Dries

The chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority board got a view of just how devastating passenger air service cuts by Delta Air Lines have been to the airport this past Easter as his Delta flight landed in Memphis.

The empty look and feel of the Memphis International Airport terminal is a challenge Jack Sammons says he will address in a new strategic plan for passenger service.

(Daily News File Photo: Kyle Kurlick)

“We were the only passenger plane at the airport,” Jack Sammons said of his arrival Sunday at 5 p.m. in a line of FedEx jets. “The comments from the passengers looking out the window burned an impression on me. It was like they had gone to the zoo and all the animals had gone. It really just got all over me.”

Sammons related the experience Tuesday, April 2, as he talked at the Memphis Rotary Club about more aggressive efforts to improve passenger service at the airport in an “era of change” nationally for airports and airlines.

“It embarrassed me,” Sammons said. “We’ve got to find a new path.”

Sammons, who became chairman of the Airport Authority board in January, said he plans to hire an air service officer.

“Competition is the obvious answer. But it’s not easy to develop,” Sammons told the group of 100 at the University Club. “I’m convinced this is not enough and plan to hire a permanent air service officer in house who wakes up every morning thinking about how am I going to get more planes coming into Memphis with affordable fares.”

The air services position is part of a “strategic plan” Sammons is unveiling that includes a public information officer to deliver a more realistic message about the ups and downs of air travel into and out of Memphis.

Sammons said communications is one of the areas airport leaders have handled poorly.

As Delta service has been cut the last two years, Sammons’ predecessor as board chairman, Arnold Perl, emphasized Delta’s loyalty to Memphis. He also challenged critics of Delta.

It didn’t go over well, stoking a growing cauldron of public outrage at already high airfares that went even higher as the level of air service dropped.

Sammons said he intends to be more open about the good and bad developments to come.

And he added Tuesday that the level of Delta service “may well get worse.”

“These angry customers are not strangers. They are not just faces in the crowd. These people are our family members. They’re our friends. They’re our coworkers,” said Sammons, a former Memphis City Council member and city chief administrative officer. “In all my years of public office, I’ve never encountered an issue that hits people’s buttons like frequent and affordable air service.”

He said the anger and social media forums that offer instant comparisons of airfares and availability of flights have affected the ability of civic leaders and businesses to attract the best and brightest talent.

Sammons aims to counter that with “an unshakeable focus on customers.”

But he also said the arrival of the Southwest brand at the airport starting in August with the conversion of AirTran flights to Southwest is a critical moment that flyers who originate and end their trips in Memphis should begin preparing for now.

Sammons is pushing enrollment in the Southwest rewards program.

“You can enroll in Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program,” he said. “If a city like Memphis has 10,000 people that are enrolled in Rapid Rewards and they make an announcement that they are coming and they’ve only got 11,000, they’re thinking our reception is lukewarm. If there are 100,000 … they’ve got some fish in the pond.”