Two jets to serve Tunica on Harrah's unit deal; Allegiant MD-80s also to go to Biloxi, New Orleans

Beginning Jan. 1, Allegiant Air will operate two jets from Tunica Air Center in a two-year contract with a subsidiary of Harrah's Entertainment.

The flights will serve Biloxi, Miss., New Orleans, St. Louis and Council Bluffs, Iowa - all towns where Harrah's has casinos - plus Shreveport, La., which has a racetrack.

Harrah's has guaranteed Allegiant a minimum of $11.8 million in annual revenue, according to Allegiant's third-quarter earnings report, made public Monday.

Harrah's would not comment, saying it was in the process of complying with Department of Transportation requirements, according to legal counsel Uri Clinton.

The deal was disclosed Oct. 16, according to documents Allegiant filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Allegiant plans to serve Tunica with two MD-80 aircraft, which seat 130 passengers.

Since 2002, it has had a similar arrangement with Harrah's in Nevada, providing charter service to casinos in Laughlin and Reno.

"We provide all Harrah's charters to those casinos," said Allegiant spokeswoman Tyri Squyres.

Parent company, Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel Co., serves the vacation needs of people in about 45 small cities, providing nonstop service to tourist destinations that include Las Vegas and Orlando from places such as Abilene, Texas; Fargo, N.D.; and Toledo, Ohio.

The publicly traded company formed in 2006.

Getting air service to Tunica has been a study in fits and starts. Harrah's made its first attempt in November 2005 with 131-seat charter service, largely as a way to comp its best customers. That service continues today.

In May 2006, Harrah's and other casinos partnered to begin offering three flights a week between Tunica and Atlanta through Boston-Maine Airways, which flew as Pan Am Clipper Connection.

Boston-Main guaranteed half the seats. Harrah's, Hollywood Casino and Gold Strike Casino committed to fill the rest.

The service ended a year ago when Boston-Maine lost other business in the Southeast that made the flights affordable.

City leaders were disappointed, but said they were committed to finding another carrier within a year for the growing airport that only four years earlier had been an airstrip used by crop-dusting services.

"In the first nine months of this year, we had 381 arrivals on 727s and 737s," said Webster Franklin, president and chief executive of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We opened the airport in 2003 with a 5,000-foot runway, which expanded to 7,000," he said. "Now, we're adding another 1,500, which will bring it to 8,500 sometime in the first quarter of '08."

He makes no secret that leaders have for several years been seeking scheduled service with a major carrier.

"We feel like we have proven we can be a success," Franklin said. "We also feel we are a large enough market that we could fly to certain larger markets with scheduled service. We think it's only a matter of time."

-Jane Roberts: 529-2512


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