Returning to Memphis a few weeks ago after participating in a Washington, D.C., panel sponsored by the Washington Monthly and New America Foundation about the damaging effects of high airfares on Memphis, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, I had a new sense of urgency about Memphians and Mid-Southerners sending a message to Delta Airlines and the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority that enough was enough.
So, last Wednesday, at about 10 p.m., I created a Facebook page, Delta Does Memphis, to give us a place to express our frustration and anger by the unfair airfares charged by Delta Airlines.
The group began with a grand total of four people.
Sometime today, the group will exceed 1,500 members. It took one week, indicating the pent-up emotions and aggravation about airfares.
I had thought that if there were 200 members in the group by Monday, it would be a success. Then I told someone that if we got 500 members, it would be a movement. It does now seem to me that we have unleashed a current for change that is directed at Delta Airlines and also the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority.
The original Facebook group description started this way: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more,” and after a few days, that gave way to this description: “The current Delta airfares are bad for the Memphis economy and have consequences in the options for our personal lives.”
If we have learned anything in the past week, it is that saying that the airfares are “bad for the Memphis economy” is an understatement in the extreme. For seven days, Memphians from all walks of life – all races, all incomes, all family situations, and all locations – have given powerful witness to the horror stories that are now routine for passengers departing from Memphis International Airport.
There are stories about a $1,400 ticket to a funeral while the rest of the family flew from other cities with tickets $1,000 cheaper. There is the young Memphis mother who can’t afford to attend her friends’ weddings because of Delta’s gouging. There is the former Memphian who lives in Chicago but planned with his wife-to-be to have their wedding in Memphis but are now worried if their friends can afford to attend.
There are the countless stories about people driving to Little Rock and taking Southwest Airlines to their destinations, but there are also numerous stories about people who drove to Little Rock to board a Delta flight and then flew back to Memphis before departing to their destinations. One of these boomerang flights resulted in a former Memphian flying here from Salt Lake City for more than $600 while his son flew from Salt Lake City to Little Rock for about $250. The son’s route home is Little Rock to Memphis to Salt Lake City.
There are the companies that won’t hold their sales meetings in Memphis because airfares are too expensive. There is the hotel manager who complains that high airfares are hurting this occupancies and City Councilman Shea Flinn who says that the airfares are the “wolf at the door” of Memphis tourism.
Equally Opportunity Unfairness
In other words, the airfares negatively touch all parts of our city, county, and region, but it creates a hurdle for our people, our professionals, and our companies to connect with the national economy. The repercussions to our economy are pervasive.
If I have employees in Memphis, it is too expensive and now inconvenient to fly them anywhere. If I am a supplier in Memphis, it is too expensive to see my customers unless I can drive to them. If I am a professional, it is expensive to connect with a peer group elsewhere. If I am a young entrepreneur or young professional, it is an expensive place if I need easy and affordable connectivity.
In other words, at the time every city needs to connect easily and freely with the rest of the world, we have a major barrier to entry, and the greatest irony of all is that in the city where FedEx invented modern global commerce, our citizens are priced out of full participation in the global and even the national market because of air fares.
Over the years, the tendency of Airport Authority officials to mimic Delta Airlines talking points has only exacerbated widespread concern. If anything is obvious from the Facebook page and our emails, it is that as a result of the insular way that airport affairs are handled, the public has many, many questions. We have received dozens of them.
There are questions about the location, design, and cost of the parking garage and if rental car revenues and parking fees will really cover its annual debt service. There are others about how much the parking garage’s debt service is each year and if that money could have been used as an incentive to Delta to lower airfares.
There are questions asking if the Airport Authority is really serious about attracting a discount airline, why it’s seemed to have placed all its eggs in the Southwest Airlines basket, and if it should be hustling as many air carriers as possible. There are questions about how Delta got such an iron grip on the airport and if officials were complicit in this. There are questions asking if the Chamber is the downtown airport office, why a public employee of the airport heads a business organization, and if all the airport-related officials make the Chamber less assertive on this issue.
There are questions about why one law firm has handled the legal work for the Authority for about 30 years. There are questions about why the terms of Airport Authority members are the longest of any public board. There are questions about why Plough Boulevard now has an honorary road sign for the chairman of the airport authority and there are questions asking if any Airport Authority members get perks from Delta Airlines.
In other words, there are questions and more questions coming in from all kinds of people on all kinds of issues, which is more than anything an indication of the depth of concern by the public that it is being held hostage to Delta Airlines and its onerous airfares.
We know that the Airport Authority is serious about its work and the questions that we have received indicate to us that the work should include more emphasis on communications. It’s likely that each of the questions emailed to us have straightforward answers, but the convergence of frustration by the public and lack of transparency by the Authority is a lethal combination that should be dealt with as soon as possible. There’s never been a better time for the Airport Authority to clear the air and open lines of communications with the citizens whose city and county governments created it.
Meanwhile, Delta does what it does best – issuing its pro forma responses about how Memphis pays a premium to have so many flights and how fuel costs are driving up costs. It seems to escape them that all those cities with fairer airfares have to buy fuel too and if we have been paying a premium for too many flights, shouldn’t airfares then be going down since Delta has cut 30% of our flights?
There are people we respect who are nervous about this campaign and the potential for upsetting the airline, but we are customers, and only in Delta’s world are the customers not always right. They explain away our feelings and bat aside our opinions.
They leave us with a civic version of Stockholm syndrome and that’s the worst byproduct of our reationship with Delta Airlines.