Inside the Fence

March 4, 2009

On air service development and competing with the private sector ...

The Mobile Airport Authority (MAA), subject of this issue’s cover story, sees itself as a player in the economic development field, with which it is having success. Officials there also like to think they are innovative, which led to their application for a grant from the DOT’s Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASD).

The subsequent $456,000 grant allowed them to assume an airline services operation in 2002, giving them a tool to attract new air service, called the Station Services program. NATA, which represents aviation service companies, has been fighting the notion of using tax monies for public entities to compete with the private sector ever since.

For some, Mobile has become the poster child for what’s wrong with the federal program.

Says Bill Sisson, executive director at MAA, “I’m not necessarily adverse to being a poster child. I think it’s good to be innovative, and if we are I see it as a positive, that this airport authority has thought creatively. It’s easy to get in a rut and always do things the same way. If we’ve been creative and been successful at doing something like that, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

Comments marketing manager Julie Bordes, “We started Station Services to save air service that we had at the time. United [which provided airline services at Mobile] wanted to leave after September 11, and US Airways would have left with United had Station Services not been formed. US Airways is still there and is doing just fine.

“One of the main reasons American Eagle even looked at Mobile to start Dallas service was because we could offer them Station Services. So it’s helped the air service in our community grow.”

In 2005, the Government Account-ability Office, in a report to Congress, highlighted Mobile as a successful element in the program, only one of five grant airports to achieve sustainability in achieving improvements to air service, the cornerstone of the program.

Comments MAA director of aviation Thomas G. Hughes, A.A.E., “We worked a deal with United to allow us to utilize their equipment for a time, and we took the employees on under the airport authority umbrella. We were able to save the service to Charlotte.

“When American Eagle had been approached about coming to Mobile, we were told we were not a main target for them. However, with the Station Services program, they took an interest. It did alleviate some of the start-up costs; it did alleviate some of the personnel issues.”

He points out that Station Services is a break-even exercise. Says Sisson, “I see it as a development tool in our toolbox.”

As communities around the U.S. wrestle with maintaining air service, it’s a tool that other airports are considering putting in their toolbox.

Thanks for reading.