It’s been two weeks since we created the Facebook group, Delta Does Memphis, because of our concern about the damaging impact that unfair airfares are having on the Memphis regional economy.
Part of it was to just draw some attention to this problem since it hardly seems realistic to expect an airline official in Atlanta to be worrying about our economy, and because of it, we needed to do something to move this issue higher on our civic agenda and to create a movement for addressing it.
We thought when we began that if we had 750 people in the group at this point, we thought we would have been successful. Today, the number of people in this group is just short of 3,500, and all local media have covered, and are covering, Delta Airlines’ gouging of the Memphis market and concern about the future of the Delta Airlines hub here.
Delta Does Memphis has been called the most impressive use of social media to mobilize public opinion every undertaken in our community. News reporters have commented on the cross-section of Memphians who have joined in the conversation and pointed out the consequences of this problem – CEOs, heads of nonprofit organizations, artists, young professionals, and more.
All of this has done more than produce good PR for a city willing to fight for its future. It has pressed for good public policy that prepares Memphis for whatever is to come.
The personal stories have been consistent and at times unbelievable: airfares that make no sense and have no relationship to market forces. There are local companies who are passed over for work in other cities because potential clients won’t pay their airfares from Memphis. There are conventions and tourists that choose to go to cities with affordable airfares. There are the Jackson, Tennessee, residents who now drive to Nashville rather than Memphis for their air travel.
There are special places like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital whose fundraising is inhibited and the costs of flying children in for care are excessive. There are CEOs for Fortune 500 companies who complain that airfares cause them to have sales meetings in other cities. There’s a former Memphian who planned his wedding in Memphis to show off his hometown but his friends can’t afford to travel here. There are Memphians who are always AWOL at friends’ weddings in other cities because they can’t afford the tickets. There are hundreds of people who drive to Little Rock or Nashville every month to buy tickets and save several hundreds of dollars.
The stories go on and on but one thing is clear: unfair airfares touch all parts of our economy and our lives.
So, what should we be doing?
First, we need Congressman Steve Cohen to leverage his membership on the U.S. House of Representative’s Transportation Committee to provide us with information and work for federal policies that could address Memphis’ status as a fortress hub. We need him to remind U.S. Department of Transportation that we need as much attention given to airport issues as is given to expensive highway projects and that money spent to make Memphis comparable in airfares is even more important than the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on I-269.
Second, we need Congressman Cohen to reach out to his colleagues who represent St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, other cities whose economies are disrupted by high airfares. They need to exchange information and think about how they together can bring more influence to this issue.
Learning from Others
Third, we need someone to convene a process that considers Memphis’ scenarios for the future. One would be to consider what our community will do if we go the way of Cincinnati, a city decimated by Delta’s decision to eliminate two-thirds of its flights and close the hub there. Cincinnati is a cautionary tale for Memphis, because it has so many parallels to what’s taking place here.
Cincinnati officials took airline officials at their word when they said the city was valued as a key part of the airlines’ network, when in fact, years before, the decision had been made to abandon Cincinnati. In retrospect, city officials there believe that the death knell was when Northwest Airlines built a $1 billion terminal in Detroit. To pay for it, airline officials moved flights from Cincinnati to Detroit to the cost of the new facility.
The question for us is what impact will the new $1.4 billion terminal in Atlanta have on Memphis flights and will Delta Airlines move more of them to Atlanta to pay for the new facility there. Just in case that takes place, we should be talking with Cincinnati public and private officials about what lessons they learned, what advice they can give us, and what they are doing now to create competitive airfares.
Life After The Hub
Meanwhile, as part of the same process, we need to be meeting with Nashville officials about life after a hub. When American Airlines closed its Nashville hub, there was great gnashing of teeth there. As American Enterprise Institute wrote in January, 2007:
“In 1995, Nashville lost its American Airlines hub. It left much of the airport empty and local leaders bemoaning the city’s misfortune. For a few years, there were fewer destinations for passengers flying out of Nashville. But with the expansion of competitive service and the arrival of discounters Southwest, JetBlue and Frontier, fares have dropped 22 percent. Ever since US Airways closed its hub at Pittsburgh, empty gates have been slowly filled by low-fare airlines and other legacy competitors. Today, passengers there pay less than they did when US Airways had the hub there.
“’We’ve actually had more success in recruiting (corporate) headquarters in the last two years than probably (we’ve had in) the history of the city,’ Janet Miller of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce told Minneapolis’ City Pages. ‘Having a hub is not the deal breaker when it comes to recruiting headquarters. Having diversified carriers and competitive costs has a lot to do with it as well.
“The final concern–the potential loss of prestige for the city–is the weakest argument for preserving hub service, but it is also tremendously powerful to local boosters who love Memphis. Sure, it’s prestigious for Memphis to have a daily nonstop flight to Amsterdam, but if the price of all those red tails on the tarmac is higher fares and reduced competition, is it worth it?”
We’re not trying to be fatalistic about Memphis’ future as a hub, but thinking through the potential scenarios and possible plans of action is not fatalism but good business.
A Different Message
Fourth, we need the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority to verbalize our widespread frustration and demonstrate its concern in meaningful ways. It needs to remove things that suggest it’s insular and part of the old boys’ network in our city. They can demonstrate that public service is their motivation by eliminating signs of ego and self-importance like honorary street signs and professional photographs, and post welcome signs from the citizens who after all own the airport and whose governments created the Authority.
It requires a sustained communications plan and a transparency strategy. We know that there are conversations with Delta and Southwest Airlines that require secrecy, but that doesn’t mean that the Airport Authority can’t tell the public its broad philosophy, its point of view, and its aspirations.
In addition, the Airport Authority should brave a discussion with the Delta Does Memphis group and work with its members to harness the overwhelming frustration in the region to propel support for Southwest Airlines.
Three More Ideas
From David Williams:
“Here are 3 tangible things we could consider doing as next steps for generating action and fighting for Memphis on this issue:
“1. Contact Congressman Steve Cohen. He is a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and a member of the Subcommittee on Aviation. On February 14, 2012 Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. He should be fighting for Memphis on this issue. (For Congressman Cohen’s contact, click here.)
“2. Contact Mayor AC Wharton and Mayor Mark Luttrell and request they use any and all means to immediately make the greater Memphis area more proactive in developing innovative, solution-driven answers to questions surrounding service levels and fares – especially as they relate to our metro economy. With the world leader in global logistics/economy headquartered in Memphis – I think I know who would be an excellent chair for such a group.
“3. Set up Facebook pages to recruit competition to Memphis, such as “Memphis Wants Southwest” and/or “Memphis Wants Spirit.” We should not reduce the pressure on Delta – so we need for this FB page to stay active and hold Delta accountable – but we should be using our collective voices to also let other airlines know they would be welcome in Memphis. We are gaining traction with Delta Does Memphis – and a similar social media campaign to recruit other airlines seems like a logical next step for those of us who want to do more. Perhaps we could tell the other airlines where we project we will fly in the coming 12 months and how many times to each location. We could tell them how many of those flights will originate from Memphis and how many from other cities such as Nashville or LR. (Might also include trips that would invite air travel that are currently driven – like the example earlier about Baton Rouge – and I heard a similar story of someone who drove to Lexington, KY in 6 hours and saved 2 hours and $350+) We could really use projected flight information from FedEx, IP, Medtronic, Smith & Nephew, etc. and other companies in the area that would help other airlines understand increased business would be here – if it wasn’t being driven away by Delta. Perhaps John Moore at the chamber or Reid Dulberger at EDGE has or could develop that data for the Memphis area.”