Officials at Memphis International Airport are pointing to signs of a turnaround following a downsizing in operations



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MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Officials at Memphis International Airport are pointing to signs of a turnaround following a downsizing in operations.

In terms of scheduled flights, Memphis is among the top 10 highest-growth airports of comparable size for the first three months of 2016, the Commercial Appeal (bit.ly/1nsuKtS) reported. And airfares have fallen sharply, it said.

Flights, passengers and nonstop destinations are down by two-thirds to three-fourths since Delta Air Lines gobbled up longtime hub operator Northwest in 2008 and began dismantling the once-bustling hub.

Parts of the airport are like a ghost town, especially on weekends and at slack hours of the day, the newspaper reported. Dozens of gates have been idled, and half the former restaurants and shops have gone dark.

Once home to as many as 300 flights a day and more than 11 million passengers a year, the city- and county-owned airport has too much space, a problem that should be remedied by a planned downsizing and modernization of the facility over the next five years.

Since last spring, after Delta made a final round of cuts, the airport has well outpaced the national average in growth of available airplane seats. It has added 14 new destinations and three new airlines serving niche markets.

The growth is expected to slow later this year, but positive momentum can't be denied.

Airline industry observer Seth Kaplan, who authored a new book detailing how Delta engineered a business turnaround in part by reducing unprofitable service in markets like Memphis, said the airport "seems to have bottomed out and now be on the rise."

"Memphis has rather quickly gotten back on its feet, thanks partly to just the macroenvironment: decent national economy and falling fuel prices and also because of the airport's efforts to recruit new service," Kaplan said.

Robert Cockerham, a construction contractor, said he recently booked his first flight out of Memphis in years, an Allegiant flight to Fort Lauderdale; he's looking forward to using Frontier's new budget service to Atlanta.

"It's definitely a positive trend out there," said Cockerham, who flies two or three times a month. "I don't know if it's the new regime or if it's some of the airlines saying it's an underserved market."

Fares are a bright spot for an airport long known for some of the nation's highest fares, owing to the anti-competitive climate of a major airline hub. Average roundtrip fares dropped $93 over three years because of the demise of Delta's hub and arrival of lower cost carriers including Southwest, Frontier and Allegiant.

"There's a point where lowering the fares will open up air travel to a whole different group of people in the Mid-South, and that's what we're seeing today," airport president and chief executive Scott Brockman said. "We're seeing people come to the airport who have never been here before."


Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com

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