Editor’s note: In this follow-up to our story on the impact of Memphis International Airport’s decline as a regional airline hub, we discuss related problems for the Mid-South travel industry.
But first, HottyToddy.com gladly corrects the following inaccuracies from our Dec. 6 post. These clarifications were brought to our attention by Glen Thomas, public information officer for the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.
Due to a copy editing error on a photo caption we mistakenly wrote “shut down” when we intended “reduced flights.” Thomas points out that, “Delta discontinued its transfer hub status but still continues its operations with more than 40 daily flights.”
In the second paragraph of the original article we could have more accurately said that DELTA’s flights in and out of Memphis HAVE declined from about 250 to 50 domestic flights daily. Although employee reductions were not cited in the original story, airline employees have told HottyToddy.com that they expect continuing staff reductions to occur in January and expand this summer.
A reference to airport shutdowns “potentially costing as much as a billion dollars” was meant to apply to the cost of building the airport and represented only an estimate. HottyToddy.com regrets any inaccuracies.
Travel Agent Blues
Jan Oglesby, co-owner of Gulliver’s Travel Agency in Memphis, says flight declines at Memphis International Airport are severely hurting the travel industry and her business in several key ways.
First the 33-year veteran travel agent says the loss of the Delta Airlines hub in Memphis leads to the loss of direct flights for business travelers and leisure flyers. This means frustration, inconvenience and a 30-percent hit to her bottom line.
“The lack of non-stop flights hurts a lot of people,” said Oglesby who estimates her company’s annual sales at $8-$9 million. “If you’re flying Delta you have to make connections through Atlanta to go almost anywhere. Let me explain by using myself as an example. I’m flying Dec. 21 to see my family in Jacksonville, Fla. I’ve already received notice of five scheduled changes. I’ll leave Memphis at 7:40 a.m. and arrive in Jacksonville at 3 p.m. after a two-hour layover in Atlanta. This used to be a 1-hour, 24-minute fight.”
Oglesby adds that this is the new reality for all Memphis Airport customers as the traveling Mid-South public is affected by declining flights and the airport’s demise as a direct international port.
Oglesby agrees with other regional business leaders that the results will be devastating to area business, leisure travelers, and Memphis’s reputation as one of the nation’s top distribution centers. Captains of industry and economic development for North Mississippi are worried.
“One of the reasons Toyota located its plant in Bay Springs near Tupelo was the availability of the Memphis International Airport, said Doug Formby, vice president of production and administration for the Blue Springs plant. “The decline of the airport will have a major impact on Toyota and I suspect this will affect the future economic development of North Mississippi.
“We fly executives in and out all of the time. This decline means greater difficulty in getting people in and out and higher cost. If we decide to expand, this will be critical as we bring in many people for any expansion,” he added.
Gulliver’s travel, in part, makes its money by booking corporate flyers to make their appointments around the country. “We have 4-5 major corporate clients who have used us for 30 years,” Oglesby explained. “Our booked Corporate travel is down about 30 percent. Without naming our clients, let me say that we serve a lot of lawyers. In the past an attorney might book a 6 a.m. non-stop fight to New York, do a deposition and jump on a plane for a direct flight in time to sleep in her own bed. Today, that same lawyer will have to change planes in Atlanta and wait until the next day to get a flight back. That costs company’s hotel and meal money and it’s a lot less timely.”
The vacation side of her business is also directly affected by changes at the former Delta hub and international departure point. “We do a lot of resort business with tours to Mexico and especially Cabo St. Lucas,” said the 65-year-old self-described baby boomer. “Now that trip takes more planning and more time because connections will have to be made in Atlanta, Houston or Dallas.”
The 2 million-mile flyer warns cruise line customers to get to their port of call a day early to avoid complications and the potential of missing a cruise. “Many of our cruise customers will drive down to New Orleans instead of flying,” she said.
For vacationers who want to go to Europe, Oglesby says the elimination of a direct KLM flight from Memphis to Amsterdam has diminished that business as well. “We used to have a direct flight to Paris with Delta, but when that stopped in September, the trip changed to Memphis to Atlanta or Cincinnati to Paris.”
Although she says Delta is still her preferred carrier, Oglesby admits that meeting customers’ demands requires her to book increasingly through American, U.S. Air and United. For Caribbean vacationers, a common route is Memphis to Charlotte, N.C., via U.S. Air. Oglesby says the pending U.S. Air, American merger could have real benefits for her business.
For Oglesby and her business partner Todd Bagatelas, hustle and customer focus are even more imperative to stay afloat in what seems like a sinking Mid-South transportation environment. “Travel agents are doing 10 times the work just to keep up,” she said. “Customer service is the name of the game, but some of these changes in convenience and efficiency are out of our hands.”
What happens if the airport she depends on goes even deeper into decline with even steeper drops in flights? “If I thought about that too hard, I wouldn’t get up to go to work,” she admitted. “But I’m optimistic for one basic reason. People of my generation are determined to travel. If it takes a couple of extra days to make that trip of a lifetime, they’re still gonna go.”
Andy Knef is HottyToddy.com editor