SeaPort Airlines will link Memphis and four Arkansas cities

October 23, 2009

By Wayne Risher

Operators of SeaPort Airlines earned their wings using small planes to fly passengers around Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

Starting Monday, they'll apply that experience to regular air passenger service between Memphis and four Arkansas communities.

SeaPort, which derives its name from Seattle and its home base of Portland, Ore., will provide three round-trips daily except Saturdays to Jonesboro, Harrison, Hot Springs and El Dorado.

The communities have been without regular service since 2008, when Air Midwest, a subsidiary of Mesa Airlines, pulled out of the markets. SeaPort beat out several companies that submitted proposals to the Department of Transportation and signed a two-year contract to provide the service for a $6,047,789 federal subsidy.

The Essential Air Services program subsidizes airlines to provide service that wouldn't be profitable on the open market.

SeaPort's strength is "right-sizing" aircraft and operations for routes that don't generate enough business to fill commuter planes with 20, 35 or 50 seats, CEO Kent Craford said.

It saves passengers time with free parking and arrival 15 minutes before flights. It uses smaller planes (less than 30 seats) and flies out of facilities where passengers don't have to go through Transportation Security Administration-run security checkpoints.

"It beats the drive hands down," said Craford. "What we're really doing is competing with the automobile."

SeaPort was renovating a private terminal at Signature Flight this week and training pilots on flight and ground operations of Swiss-built Pilatus PC-12s, a pressurized, fuel-efficient turboprop aircraft.

Signature is one of Memphis International Airport's fixed-based operators of general aviation services.

Chief operations officer Rob McKinney said the company will start with three of the nine-passenger aircraft and add a fourth soon.

McKinney said officials expect about a 50-50 split between passengers connecting to other flights at the main terminal, a quick shuttle van drive away, and people just traveling Memphis-Arkansas legs.

"Our experience is people will come to Memphis to shop and do business who didn't before, because it was too painful," McKinney said. "One of the beauties of the equipment is that we can provide convenient service at a competitive cost."

SeaPort launched with daily scheduled flights between Portland and Seattle in June 2008. It has since expanded to serve Pendleton, Newport and Astoria, Ore. Its sister unit, Wings of Alaska, flies between the Alaskan capital and six outlying communities.

Harrison, Ark., Mayor Pat Moles said officials will celebrate with a ribbon-cutting Monday at Harrison Regional Airport.

While they hoped for larger aircraft, they are glad to have service restored. Harrison had been a stop on an Air Midwest flight from Kansas City to Dallas that also stopped in Hot Springs.

Moles said, "We feel like for the economic growth of Harrison, to have an airline, even though we are close to three or four good-sized airports, we just feel like it would be convenient for our citizens to board a plane in Harrison and fly to a hub and make connections."

Passenger service also is important to the FedEx Freight operation in Harrison, which employs 1,400.

"We want to make sure they stay here. They are a very important part of our community, providing jobs for the people of our area," Moles said.

In an effort to attract passengers, SeaPort is offering introductory fares of $49 each way to Harrison, Hot Springs and El Dorado and $29 each way to Jonesboro with three-week advance purchase.

"We're working hard to develop a community of interest," said Craford. "We're appealing to people who go into Memphis to shop, see the Grizzlies, etc. We think there's a great opportunity to bring people from the Memphis market to Arkansas for leisure."

-- Wayne Risher: 529-2874

SeaPort Airlines

Schedule: Three round-trip flights daily except Saturday between Memphis and Arkansas cities of Jonesboro, Harrison, Hot Springs and El Dorado

Subsidy: $6 million by federal Essential Air Service program

Memphis operation: Based in private terminal at Signature Flight, 2488 Winchester.

Employment: About 35 people in Memphis, including 18 pilots

Web site: seaportair.com