ExpressJet Coming to Meridian

June 19--MERIDIAN -- ExpressJet is the new airline carrier chosen to serve Meridian Regional Airport. The airline has set Nov. 1 as its target date to start service in Meridian.

Officials will await formal approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Mayor Percy Bland of Meridian announced the selection on Wednesday, saying ExpressJet was the best choice for Meridian. The airline will have flights to Dallas Fort Worth International, with some flights including a short layover at the Hattiesburg-Laurel airport.

"ExpressJet's bid was far superior to ADI," Bland said as he addressed a crowd of area business leaders, elected officials, and economic development representatives. Bland added that ExpressJet will partner with American Airlines; the largest airline in the world.

The other bidder was Aerodynamics Inc., which offers service to Atlanta.

The move came as a result of an April announcement by Silver Airways that it would discontinue service between Atlanta and Meridian and four other airports in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Greenville, Hattiesburg-Laurel and Tupelo in Mississippi.

Both bids included flights on jets that seat up to 50 passengers.

"That's a very big deal for us because that's exactly what we wanted," Bland said.

The schedule has not yet been finalized, but passengers traveling to and from DFW from Meridian will have at least one layover at Hattiesburg-Laurel, Bland said.

Bland said of critical importance is that ExpressJet is approved by the Department of Defense as a carrier of military personnel, which potentially could allow men and women coming to Naval Air Station Meridian to fly into Meridian, instead of having to fly into the Jackson airport.

ExpressJet will also offer jet-bridge access, so passengers will not have to walk to the terminal from the airplane or ride a bus, Bland said. ADI's proposal offered remote parking of the airplane.

Bland also noted that the airfare for ADI would have been what is called an add-on, meaning that the amount would be added to whatever the fare is from Atlanta to the final destination.

The ExpressJet fare will be pro-rated, which means it will be part of American Airlines overall pricing structure, allowing more flexibility for creating competitive pricing, Bland said. He added that the airport will work aggressively with American to ensure competitive pricing with Jackson.

The mayor will send a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation making the recommendation for ExpressJet. He was assisted in his selection by a panel of seven community members who studied the proposals.

"I want to thank the community panel, which provided such great insight and the area businesses who have already pledged to become partners with us in making Meridian Regional Airport a strong and growing component of our economy," Bland said.

Tom Williams, president of Meridian Airport Authority, said including rental cars and airlines, there are about a dozen people who are employed at the terminal.

"That will grow when we establish good air service," Williams said. "Honestly, we were dying. With the service we had, the way people have not been able to use it. It hasn't worked for them. We were really on our death bed. This was really a miraculous recovery."

Williams said that ExpressJet aligning with American Airlines just made it more attractive for Meridian. He said there is no indication yet what the price range will be for passengers.

"What we know about American and ExpressJet is that they are aggressive on pricing," Williams said.

Those serving on the panel with Bland were Brian Fortenberry, president and CEO of American Protection Service, Jacqueline Van Zyverden Hogan, owner of Van Zyverden; Lamar McDonald of Meyer and Rosenbaum Insurance; Tom Anderson, vice president of Anderson Regional Medical Center South; LaBaron Hedgemon, pastor of Freedom Rock Church; Wallace Strickland, president and CEO of Rush Health Systems; and Eddie Kelly, Meridian Division Manager for Mississippi Power.

McDonald, who has long been an active member of the Navy Meridian Team, said it was a great choice for Meridian.

"Obviously we wanted something for the community, but we also needed something for our military people. It was terrible for them to have to go all the way to Jackson and Birmingham," McDonald said. "Frankly, it would hurt us further down the road if we did not have service for our military."

Wade Jones, president of East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, said the move is very significant to the economy.

"This is important to existing business and industry as much as it is to prospective companies," Jones said.

David Vowell, executive director of the Community Development Partnership of Neshoba County, said this helps the entire region.

"It was a way for our local companies, like the Yates Company, Weyerhauser, Thomas and Company, Pearl River Resort -- they all need this as a way to travel to bring in customers or to carry their employees places and they all need it," Vowell said. "We wanted to support it and we wanted to support the Meridian area, too."

Copyright 2014 - The Meridian Star, Miss.