As Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority President Larry Cox heads into the final 17 months leading up to his retirement in July 2014, he is hoping to cap off more than 40 years of service at Memphis International Airport with a big year.
“I think 2013 is going to be a very good year for new service from Memphis from new airlines at lower fares,” he said. “As Delta’s presence here gets smaller, it makes it possible for other airlines to come into Memphis – which is the smallest market to ever have an airline hub – to compete and make money, and that will bring in more robust competition, which will ultimately bring lower fares.”
Cox reflected back on his career at the airport.
“If you look back over my 40 years, we have built one of the most important airports in the world,” said Cox, who will turn 67 right before his retirement. “We birthed and gave the necessary support to become the largest air-cargo airport in the world, so it is always one of my first priorities every year to make sure that we provide the necessary infrastructure and efficiencies in the airport to allow FedEx to continue to grow in Memphis rather than other cities.”
Preliminary data for last year indicate that Memphis International and Hong Kong International were virtually tied for most cargo handled in the world until the end of the year, when Memphis numbers dipped slightly due to FedEx’s shift to more trucking and less air transportation in December, giving Hong Kong the win by a hair.
“We are very fortunate that FedEx has been in Memphis for more than 40 years now,” Cox said.
“Without FedEx we would simply have higher landing fees. We have some of the lowest landing fees in the country, and that’s due in part to the fact that we have such a large amount of landed weight.”
Cox wants and expects to see more Memphis air service this year from a larger variety of air carriers. Because of the sizable presence of Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines during the past 20 years, it has been difficult for other airlines to turn a profit in Memphis.
“Now with Delta’s presence here being smaller, our goal over the next 17 months is to see airlines that haven’t chosen to come here in the past to come in to Memphis and provide new service with lower airfares,” he said.
Last year U.S. Air added three flights per day to Washington’s Reagan National Airport, and Cox anticipates the airline will add more service in 2013. He also believes United Airlines will add service from Memphis this year and that Southwest Airlines will bring its brand into the market to replace AirTran Airways.
Many improvement projects are under way at Memphis International for 2013.
The new ground transportation center is nearing completion, and Cox expects to have the rental-car operations up and running by March 6, as well as two additional floors of the economy parking structure.
The first phase of a terminal apron repaving project is about 21 percent complete, with an estimated 18 months to two years remaining.
Inside the airport, the installation of new lighting throughout the facility is about 75 percent finished.
“We are also replacing all of the escalators and elevators in the terminal building,” Cox said. “All are more than 25 to 30 years old.”
The airport also plans to install new departure and flight-status signs.
“Our plan is to move forward with a system that will include all of the different airlines, and of course we expect new airline service to come in this year, so we will be accommodating those new airlines.”
One development Cox and other airport officials are watching closely is Delta’s acquisition of Pinnacle Airlines. Once Pinnacle emerges from bankruptcy, it will become a solely owned subsidiary of Delta, and the company is considering moving its headquarters out of Memphis.
“Whatever happens with the Pinnacle headquarters move, it does not have an impact on the airport itself. It of course has an impact on the community at large, particularly the Downtown area,” said Cox, who is also chairman of the Greater Memphis Chamber. “We are watching that issue very carefully. We hope Pinnacle will stay, but if they don’t, we will be moving into an aggressive marketing campaign to bring in some new companies to replace them.”
Cox sees Delta’s acquisition of Pinnacle as good for both companies.
“It means that Pinnacle will be a very viable airline going forward serving only Delta Air Lines. It will allow them to convert all of the 50-seat RJs to 76-seat RJs, which are much more useful now because they have more seats to cover the increased cost of fuel and they have first-class business seats that bring in more revenue. It’s a win-win for Pinnacle employees and Delta Air Lines,” he said. “As Delta continues to reduce the size of their operation here, we do not know how much Pinnacle [activity] will be in Memphis and how much will be in Detroit and Minneapolis.”