Lincoln Airport Officials Find Nebraska to Memphis Flight Cancellation a Disappointment

Lincoln airport officials are disappointed the Northwest southern service didn't take off.

Regional jet service between the Lincoln Municipal Airport and Memphis, Tenn., which began this spring as a heralded southern connection for Lincoln travelers, ends this week as a disappointment, John Wood said.

"Were very hopeful that it would meet with more success, given that it was the only southern service Lincoln had," said Wood, executive director of the Lincoln Airport Authority.

Wood said the decision by Northwest Airlines to end the service may not ruin Lincoln's chances of attracting new destinations, but it can't be seen as a positive.

"I think each airline that looks at any community is going to look at the potential route in its own right," Wood said. "It's always been difficult for us to attract service, and this certainly won't make it any easier."

Three factors contributed to the end of Lincoln-Memphis service, which will cease after Tuesday, Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said.

The flights did not attract an economically viable mix of customers, including enough customers at higher business fares, to support the service.

nThe costs of operating the flights increased, largely because of record fuel costs.

nMany passengers using the Lincoln-Memphis flights were headed to cities they could get to by using Northwest's Minneapolis/St. Paul and Detroit hubs.

Beginning Wednesday the airline will run five daily flights to Minneapolis/St. Paul and one to Detroit. The Detroit service, along with the Memphis termination, has been reduced to a single flight from three in June.

Chris Hunt is among the travelers who used the Memphis service.

Hunt, Alltel's regional communications manager, said the flights allowed phone company employees convenient connections to Little Rock, Ark. (the company's headquarters is there), as well as Atlanta, New Orleans and places in Texas.

"Without Memphis my choices to get to Little Rock will be to fly to Chicago and connect, fly to Minneapolis and connect or drive to Omaha," said Hunt. "Texas, where I sometimes travel, means heading to Denver, which is OK, but I don't have as many choices out of Denver."

Another choice Hunt won't have is the ability to make a 10 a.m. meeting in Little Rock "and be home at a decent hour the same day."

While Hunt said he's flown on numerous "packed" flights to Memphis, Wood said the airline has generally reported load factors of about 50 percent. A load factor is the percentage of seats on a particular flight that are occupied.

In May, the month in which Lincoln-Memphis service started, Northwest carried 15,814 passengers, a 38 percent increase over May of 2004.

Through November, Northwest's passenger numbers for the year were up 25 percent over last year. The airline began serving Detroit in June of 2004 (with a one-way trip).

But apparently that increase wasn't enough for Northwest.

"In the case of nonstop Lincoln-Memphis service, our financial objectives were consistently not met," Northwest's Ebenhoch said.

The Detroit service doesn't appear headed for the same fate as the Memphis flights: Ebenhoch said there are no further changes planned for Northwest's Lincoln schedule.

The addition of the service was made possible through a federal grant of up to $900,000. The grant was designated as a revenue guarantee, a one-time payment made to Northwest to ensure the profitability of the service.

Wood said Northwest and Airport Authority officials will meet soon to review how close the airline got to its revenue target. The Airport Authority will then pay some or all of the grant to Northwest.

Whatever money is leftover can be used to court another airline, and Wood said Lincoln can still apply for another Small Community Air Service Development grant next year.

However, he said, it's no certainty that the U.S. Department of Transportation will award Lincoln any cash. He anticipates that the department will be looking more at cities that have not recently gotten grants.

As for Lincoln's position in getting new service, Wood said the airlines' financial situation - several are in bankruptcy, while others are fighting high fuel costs and low-fare competitors - means they could prefer to look elsewhere.

"Carriers cannot afford to make mistakes, if you will," he said. "To go into communities that end up not being successful for them. They're being very conservative and very cautious about what they try."

Furthermore, there is no clear replacement for Lincoln as a gateway destination to the southeast and Caribbean, Wood said.

Northwest, Continental and American were the most likely candidates to provide southbound service, he said.

"When American was here, they were not interested in going to Dallas. Continental has looked at us a couple of times so far," and has not found reason to start Lincoln-Houston service.

However, there is new service on the horizon, and Wood thinks that by using it, Lincoln and central Nebraska travelers can improve the airport's standing in the eyes of other carriers. Allegiant Air begins twice-a-week round trips between Lincoln and Las Vegas next month.

Wood said he's hoping there's enough demand to increase the schedule to four flights a week, then convince Allegiant to start service between Lincoln and Orlando, Fla.

Reach Rodd Cayton at 473-7107 or rcayton@journalstar.com.



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