by Toby Sells
A year ago, right here in these pages, we said that — like it or not — a new day had dawned at Memphis International Airport (MEM) and, so far, that day has proved a bit brighter, quieting the once-loud chorus of critics.
Our story last year painted a drab portrait of an airport in decline, working to re-invent itself in the terrible aftermath of its breakup with Delta Airlines. Heads were low. Hands were wrung. [See Inside Memphis Business, February 2015.]
At the time — even after nearly two years since the de-hub — airport officials continued to deflect criticism that they could have done more to keep Delta’s hub (and its 91 daily flights) here.
Business leaders pointed to the ensuing lack of flights to and from Memphis as a major headwind to profit in quarterly earnings reports. Blistering criticism of all involved issued daily from the “Delta Does Memphis” Facebook page, which boasted some 5,000 members.
An airport official served the truth up cold: “We’re not going to be a hub again,” said John Greaud, the now-retired vice president of operations for the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA).
Instead, airport officials preached that Memphis flight service would be a “mosaic” in the future, many different (and certainly smaller) pieces that made up the overall flight service picture here, not the grand, red-and-blue monolith of Delta Airlines.
Many weren’t sure what that would really look like. Others wondered if it would work. Still others wondered if they could keep their businesses in Memphis even if it did work. Uncertainty, the great bogeyman of business, lurked in every Memphis marketplace when it came to the airport.
But in the last 12 months, the airport has put some points on the board. Those points are real, not intangible or ethereal, but solid facts. And those facts are slowly removing uncertainty’s grip from the airport and Memphis business.
“There’s a recognition that it’s getting better,” says Phil Trenary, a one-time airline executive and now president of the Greater Memphis Chamber. “When we talk about the overall environment in business, and I’m talking primarily about businesses looking to come to Memphis, the No. 1 concern remains workforce, and we’re aggressively addressing that. No. 2 is high taxes, and No. 3 is the airport.”
That’s movement, Trenary says, because back after the Delta de-hub in 2013, the airport was undoubtedly at the top of that list. Those two spots down Trenary’s list are an example of some of the numbers that have shaped the airport in the last year.
Here’s a look at some of the others:
16: That’s the number of new flights that have been added at MEM in the last year.
Jacksonville, Destin, Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, Austin, Orlando, Denver, Tampa Bay: these are just some of the destinations for some of those new flights offered.
But flights to one city raised more eyebrows in the past year, not because it is a new destination, but that the flights are on carriers that aren’t Delta. In January, Frontier Airlines announced it would begin non-stop service between Memphis and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, running three times per week.
Atlanta is considered the top destination for Memphis flyers and Delta still runs 11 flights there every day. But that also means that Delta can set the price on those flights, which start at about $300.
But with the new competition, it’s hoped that those ticket prices overall will drop. Frontier’s Atlanta flights recently listed for $45. Though not a discount airline, Memphis-based Southern Airways Express runs a flight to the smaller DeKalb-Peachtree Airport for about $200. Trenary calls it all a “very big deal.”
“One of our highest-priced flights is one of the 11 flights per day on Delta to Atlanta,” says MEM president and CEO Scott Brockman. “If you’re only flying to Atlanta, it’s pricey. If you’re flying through Atlanta [fares aren’t so pricey], because that’s what Delta wants you to do. It’s their bread and butter, like cargo in Memphis.”
37: That’s where MEM ranked (as of fourth-quarter 2015) among the top 100 airports in the country when it comes to average ticket prices.
It’s a major move considering the airport was 7th on that list in 2012. Average ticket prices back then were $540. That fact earned the airport a mention in a New York Times story headlined “Which Airports Have the Most Unfair Fares?”.
Since then, average ticket prices at MEM have slid $150, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Airport officials say the decrease is due, in part, to simply having more passengers. Nine percent more people flew from MEM in fourth-quarter 2015 than in the same period from the previous year.
Brockman says to consider that the new ranking was given even before the Frontier flight to Atlanta was on the books. So, keep an eye on this metric as prices are likely to fall further and so, too, will the airport’s ticket-price ranking.
If there is a mantra that guided the airport to both numbers above, it’s this: “The relentless pursuit of frequent and affordable air service.” It’s a mantra Brockman knows by heart and repeats often.
“We want to garner the schedule and we want to garner the price,” he says. “We want to be more affordable for this community.”
The airport isn’t building its new air service lineup in the dark. Will Livsey was hired in March 2015 as the airport’s first senior manager of air service research and development. Once an analyst with American Airlines, he now works with the local business community (including the Chamber) to see what fights are actually needed at MEM.
2,600 percent: that’s the increase in the number of visitors to the airport website from April 2015 to April 2016.
The site had an average of 55 users per day back in 2015. Today it attracts about 1,500, according to numbers from Glen Thomas, the airport’s manager of strategic communications. Now, the actual numbers might not sound huge, but they show a promise that could be a driving force for the airport.
The airport’s new website gives consumers access to every flight leaving from the Memphis airfield every single day. That’s a major change from its former site and from the sites of many major-city airports.
While many use travel sites like Expedia or Kayak to book flights, discount airlines like Southwest, Allegiant, and Frontier don’t list flights there.
On the phone, it sounds like David Williams almost can’t believe it himself.
“I don’t have a lot of negative things to say,” Williams says with a chuckle.
Williams was once one of the loudest voices on the “Delta Does Memphis” Facebook group, a group that excoriated the airline, Memphis airport officials for losing the Delta hub and, really, almost anything else happening at MEM.
The “Delta Does Memphis” group went offline late last year, though. In its place, Williams and Deacon Bob Skinner built a new group called “Memphis Airport Watchdog.” The tone of that page is much lighter with stories of flights, experiences, airports across the country and the world, and 1,200 members.
Pace Cooper replaced Jack Sammons as MSCAA board chairman when Sammons went to work for then-Memphis Mayor A C Wharton last year. Cooper says he’s not hearing as much grumbling about the Delta de-hub or the direction of the airport.
“I think some of our turn-around victories are starting to ring true,” Cooper says. “We’re at that stage where the good news is replacing some of that grumbling and we have to continue … it’s our mission and challenge to keep that good news coming and to make that grumbling a distant memory.”
Williams says toning down the rhetoric was a goal for the new Memphis Airport Watchdog group, though he won’t censor members and won’t be a “cheerleader for the airport.” But he can’t help being impressed with progress there and with the responsiveness he’s seen to his “consumer movement.”
“We got the attention of the airport and one of the best things that happened was the airport started listening to the citizens of Memphis,” Williams says. “They came out with an openness that said, ‘Maybe the people that use our airport are important people and maybe we should listen to what they have to say.’”
In December, the group made a Christmas list for the airport. They wished for new flights to Atlanta, better signage in the baggage claim area, an improved website, new (non-Delta) flight monitors in the terminal and concourses, and new monitors and free wi-fi in the cell phone lot.
They got all of it.
“Was that us?” Williams asks. “I don’t know. But you get a sense that they’re listening.”
Brockman says transparency was one of his key goals when he took the reins at the airport and Thomas, the communications director, was hired. Williams says that was a big move in the right direction, noting that Thomas is a frequent presence on the Watchdog group, listening to concerns and answering questions.
Brockman wants to start hearing two words around the airport: “my pleasure.” It’s a small intangible in the customer service culture that Brockman says will change the airport and make it “an airport of choice” for consumers.
“I want it to be a ‘Chik-fil-A moment,’” Brockman says. “If every person in this place answers someone that says ‘thank you’ with those two, simple words — ‘my pleasure’ — we’re going to change the dial. We’re going to change the perception of the culture of this airport.”
Not much has changed with the massive, $114 million concourse modernization since we reported on it last year. Final plans for its design are scheduled to get an up or down vote from the MSCAA later this year.
Those plans would consolidate all airline gates, food, retail, and more into the B concourse. The plan would also demolish the ends of the A and C concourses to give airplanes more room to maneuver in and out of B, therefore allowing more airplanes (and more flights and more people) through the airport.
Large windows will flood the B concourse with natural light. High ceilings and moving walks will give the space a more airy feel present at nearly every modern airport in the country. The plan also includes less-flashy elements like bringing the terminal and the concourses up to modern seismic standards — a $60 million project.
When talking about the changes, and even the past, Brockman’s voice carries a bit of bright, eternal optimism that has to be present in a leader weathering a storm. Cooper, of course, shares that optimism. So does Trenary when he talks about the real issues facing the Memphis business community. But so does Williams of the Watchdog group who has a journalist’s skepticism and an unapologetically un-cheerleader-like approach to the airport.
Brockman can lay out all of the successes over the last year and all of the changes that helped them along — moving to transparency, researching the needs of the Memphis market, focusing on discount carriers, adding competition at the gates, raising the customer experience, and more. But he admits it hasn’t all been flashy.
“We’re a Clydesdale,” Brockman says. “It may not be pretty, but it’s effective.”
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