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VOL. 128 | NO. 104 | Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cocktail Napkin Reality

Southern Airways Express goes from dream to reality with first flight

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

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North Mississippi attorney Stan Little’s private plane had become so popular with friends they joked that he should start his own regional airline.

Stan Little is chairman and CEO of Southern Airways Express, which will fly between Memphis, New Orleans, Destin, Panama City Beach, Gulf Shores and a few other Southern cities.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Anybody that knows someone who owns a plane wants to borrow it,” he said. “Once you have done that once, you never want to go back through an international airport hub ever again.”

While Little, 41, isn’t a pilot, he has taken his plane, a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle, all over the Caribbean on diving trips. It was on one of those trips that Little began to consider the idea of launching a regional airline.

“We started talking about the idea and we drew a route map on a napkin at a cocktail bar in the Bahamas,” he said.

Less than a year later, Little is CEO of a new Memphis-based airline called Southern Airways Express, which launches Wednesday, May 29, with an inaugural flight for industry partners and members of the media from Memphis to Destin. The routes aren’t all that different from the ones on that original cocktail napkin; the regional airline will fly to Destin and Panama City Beach, Fla., Gulf Shores, Ala., and New Orleans. Little estimates the airline employs about 50 people, including partners and contractors.

The airline, which is backed by local investors who have chosen to remain anonymous, will help fill nonstop service gaps left by major carriers, Little said. Fares on all flights will range from $129 to $249 each way.

Southern Airways Express will fly out of Olive Branch and Gen. DeWitt Spain airport near Downtown Memphis, allowing the passengers to arrive 15 minutes before a flight. The airline’s Cessna 208 Caravans seat nine passengers and a pilot. Passengers also bypass Transportation Security Administration screening and baggage and parking fees.

“Everything you don’t like about the airlines today, we are going to find ways to eliminate it,” Little said. “It will be a completely personalized experience, a foreign experience, compared to anything they have experienced.”

Little says the airline will have a luxury feel, modeled after Pan American Airways in the late 1960s and 1970s, complete with uniforms that are a nod to the luxury era of flying. Pilots will wear blue suede shoes and ladies will wear scarves.

“You’ll get to shake the pilot’s hand, and the reservation agent will know your name if you are a frequent customer,” he said.

This isn’t Little’s first business venture.

The Humboldt, Tenn., native purchased his first radio station at the age of 17 with the help of his father.

“It took a few months to convince my father to cosign the loan at the local bank in town,” he said with a wry smile.

Little says the station was the first all news and talk station for rural Western Tennessee.

He’s also worked as a defense attorney, cotton merchant, the publisher of a travel magazine based in Oxford, Miss., the owner of an oyster restaurant and tiki bar on Oxford Square and as a floor manager of the booking website Cheaptickets.com.

Little, who holds a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law, also ran for circuit judge of the 17th District in 2010, and lost. He continues to operate a law practice in Hernando and also is licensed to practice in Hawaii.

Little moved to Hawaii after law school and originally planned to practice there. While studying for the state’s bar, he worked as an early morning shift manager for Cheaptickets.com.

“That’s where I really learned a lot about ticketing and fare structures and the way the airlines operate,” he said. “You got to see how they allot these seats – which most people find illogical and unfair.”

While he ultimately decided to return to Mississippi to open a practice, Little credits the time he spent in Hawaii with his love for travel.

Little won’t quit his day job as a defense attorney just yet, but he hopes demand will allow the airline to continue expanding both flight frequency and routes.

“We’ve made the commitment that we won’t abandon any of our Gulf destinations when the low season comes, but those routes will be available on a reduced frequency,” he said.

In the fall, Little says the airline plans to fly to Birmingham, Ala., Oxford, Miss., Chattanooga, Tenn., Knoxville, Tenn., and possibly Atlanta – but demand will drive the destinations. He’s encouraging potential customers to suggest cities where they’d like to see nonstop service.

“Atlanta was not originally on our business plan, but as goes our business model, we want to fill in where others are dropping,” he said. “I hope by this time next year we’ll have a dozen planes.”

The airline has already run into a few bumps. The airline held a reception and news conference on May 13 at Olive Branch Airport to announce route plans and to meet the public. The reception was postponed from April 22 due to delays in setting up the airline’s website, iflysouthern.com.

While the airline is scheduled to launch Wednesday, the booking site was still not live Tuesday and the airline says it still is awaiting certification from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Keith Sisson, Southern Airways Express chief operating officer, said the airline’s booking website will be available to the public later this week.

Little says he loves a good challenge. On the day the airline moved into its One Commerce Square headquarters, Little picked up the first call. It was a potential customer from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., calling to inquire about booking a flight from Destin to Oxford.

“I’m always on the lookout for the next challenge, and I think I’ve found it in this,” Little said.

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