Shoals Airport Courting Airlines

June 29--MUSCLE SHOALS -- An air service consultant assisting Northwest Alabama Regional Airport is confident the Shoals can remain in the Essential Air Service program and move forward with a new airline to a different hub.

Airport officials and community leaders will meet this week with representatives of two airlines that want to provide commercial air service to the Shoals.

At the same time, Mike Mooney and Airport Director Barry Griffith are preparing a response to a U.S. Department of Transportation order that terminates the Shoals' Essential Air Service eligibility.

Mooney is an air service strategy and development consultant with Sixel Consulting Group, a Eugene, Oregon, air service consulting firm.

Mooney explained that in 2012, Congress required airports in EAS communities to have at least 10 boardings per day to remain eligible for the program.

On June 24, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its final order terminating the EAS eligibility of the Shoals and 12 other communities across the country. Greenville, Mississippi; Jackson, Tennessee; and Athens, Georgia, were among those communities.

The order states "... we determine that Muscle Shoals has not met the statutory requirements and thus, is no longer an eligible community under the EAS program."

Despite the sense of finality of that statement, Mooney points out the airports can petition the Transportation Department for a waiver from the 10-enplanement rule if the community can demonstrate the decline in boardings was caused by a temporary situation.

The Shoals' argument will focus on the disappointing service it received from Silver Airways, which began providing service to Atlanta in October 2012.

Silver also provides air service in the Mississippi communities of Greenville, Tupelo and Laurel-Hattiesburg. The airline's EAS contract expires Sept. 30.

The community has until July 24 to submit the petition for a waiver.

Mooney said he believes the fact that three airlines have shown interest in the area will also help its chances of receiving a waiver.

"Supporting that confidence is the fact we got three airlines to bid and their subsidy requirements are significantly lower than Silver's requirement, and we believe the market will start to grow with the new air service we get in the fall," Mooney said.

A group of airport and civic leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., in February to provide Transportation Department officials with information even before the termination notice was received, Mooney said.

Since the process is new, Mooney said, anything the department does will set a precedent.

"What they have is a mandate from Congress to do it, but no textbook that tells them how to do it," Mooney said. "The Transportation Department has to set the precedent and protocol for this process as they go along."

Mooney said he's confident the Shoals will receive the waiver due to the amount of evidence they have to demonstrate the decrease in boardings is a temporary issue that can be linked to poor performance by Silver Airways.

A look at the last nine years of air service in the Shoals indicates an average of 12,000 passengers annually flew out of and into Northwest Alabama Regional Airport, Mooney said.

"Our argument to the government is clearly that Silver Airways was a temporary disruption of a market that consistently averaged 12,000 passengers prior to Silver," Mooney said.

Copyright 2014 - The Decatur Daily, Ala.