Tunica Air Center has lost the air service it hoped would make the region an entertainment mecca.
Boston-Maine Airways, flying as Pan Am Clipper Connection, stopped its thrice-weekly service this month after losing key routes out of Atlanta.
Since early May, the carrier had been using Boeing 727s to fly 70 to 80 passengers per flight from Atlanta to Tunica in partnership with several casinos, which guaranteed a set number of seats.
Traffic was starting to pick up, including passengers driving from Memphis for the Atlanta flight, said Clifton Johnson, Tunica County administrator.
"We are out there soliciting for other carriers," he said, "and not just to replace the Atlanta flight but to get scheduled service from a number of cities."
When Boston-Maine lost its flights from Atlanta to Orlando and Puerto Rico, it was no longer feasible to fly to Tunica.
A consortium made up of casino representatives and county leaders hopes to have a replacement sometime in 2007.
Less than a year ago, the first large plane landed in Tunica, a major milestone for a community that 12 years ago didn't have a paved highway.
"We've landed 16,000 passengers in the first 10 months of this year," said Webster Franklin, president and chief executive of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Most of the business flew in on the 131-seat charter Harrah's Entertainment sponsors, now averaging 1.3 flights a day.
It began the service last November, in part as a way to comp its best customers.
Until then, the Tunica airport, which opened in 2003, had never served a plane with more than 30 passengers.
While the Pan Am decision comes as a blow, the consortium recently asked the county's congressional delegation for enough money to extend the runway from 7,000 feet to 8,500.
"We're also planning a terminal building, but we would like to build a terminal around an airline's needs," Franklin said.
The airport opened a 20,000-square-foot hangar this fall, designed to store customer planes overnight and in bad weather.
"It turned out, we've had such interest from the commercial side, we're now trying to hold a third to a half of the space for commercial purposes," said Cliff Nash, airport director.
The hangar was built on a $2.5 million bond issue through the county, part of $33 million invested in the airport since it opened.
"We feel like the airport plays a vital role in the growth of this area. We have a lot of people interested in what's going on in Tunica, and we have an airport with facilities to accommodate them."
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