Transformation in the Delta

As gaming boosts area economy, Tunica Airport expands; eyes scheduled service

Known as “The South’s Casino Capital,” Tunica lies in the plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in northwestern Mississippi. A long-time agricultural community turned burgeoning gaming market, the area now boasts nine world-class casinos, some 6,300 hotel rooms, and a healthy sales tax revenue. Meanwhile, Tunica Municipal is completing a large capital improvement program that has extended the runway, added an airport-run fixed based operation, and is about to break ground on a new passenger terminal facility and commercial apron expansion. The airport is focused on complementing its strong charter presence with scheduled commercial service in an effort to diversify its capabilities and continue to support and enhance the region’s growth.

Located in the Mississippi Delta approximately 30 miles south of Memphis, the Tunica area has grown during the last decade and a half into America’s third largest gaming region behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City. With a population of some 1,300, Tunica draws more than ten million visitors each year. Tourism remains on the rise here and Tunica Municipal Airport is one of the many beneficiaries of the region’s growth, and it is fixed on supporting and enhancing that growth.

“We are an agricultural-based community that has really taken off in the tourism industry,” says Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Webster Franklin.

“We are enjoying some very good success, and are finding that once our visitors come and experience us, they like it, and they come back.

“The growth of the airport, in its various stages during the past few years, and how fast it has developed, is a mirror image of Tunica.”

Franklin relates that when the gaming industry arrived in Tunica after the Mississippi legislature legalized gambling for the state in the early ‘90s, there was one 12-room hotel and no stretch of four-lane highway anywhere.

“Now we have an infrastructure that has been built to accommodate millions of people on an annual basis; the airport is continuing to grow, and I think it’s going to play an ever-increasing role in the overall development of this area,” says Franklin.

Charter Service Abounds
Hired in 2002 by the Tunica County Airport Commission, airport executive director Cliff Nash says 75-80 percent of the business is commercial charter aircraft activity. He relates that the charter program at Tunica started in 2005 after the airport extended its lone runway to 7,000 feet and received Part 139 certification to allow large jets.

The first large jet to land at Tunica was a 125-passenger 737 operated by Gold Transportation for casino and hotel mega-company Harrah’s Entertainment. “We live and die by the casinos,” says Nash. “Of the larger casino companies here, Harrah’s has really done the bulk of flying into the airport.”

In 2007, relates Nash, Harrah’s found that the charter program was proving to be a real success, and it doubled their efforts. The airport saw some 47,700 charter passengers that year. In 2008, thanks to the initiation of additional charter service by MGM under the Gold Strike casino properties, charter boarding rose to some 60,000 passengers.

“Starting in January of ‘08, Harrah’s initiated a contract with Allegiant Airlines to base two MD80s, capable of seating up to 172 passengers, at the airport along with a station manager and staff,” says Nash.

ExpressJet, a regional charter airline, has also been flying into the airport with six to eight flights per month, also for Harrah’s, says Nash. Overall charter activity for the airport currently averages some 102 destinations in 26 states.

“We average about 45-55 flights per month; up from a total of 200 in all of 2006,” says Nash. “We are hoping to have some 70-75,000 commercial boardings this year; we are currently 17 percent ahead in terms of total passengers year over year.

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