The Right Trend Line on Enplanements
Only eight months ago, Memphis International Airport inked a deal with the Memphis Grizzlies in an effort to elevate the airport’s brand and increase its impact in the marketplace. And yet, these days, it’s the airport that’s got a youthful team on a winning streak.
It’s impressive how far MEM has come in such a short time. At the time the Grizzlies marketing partnership was announced, no one argued that grit and grind did not seem to be the appropriate theme for the airport as it continued to climb out of the hole that Delta Air Lines had blown in its air service.
These days, the work by the airport team seem a long way from being gritty or a grind as they pursue more flights and see larger planes being added for the Memphis market. More to the point, the mood at the airport is justifiably upbeat and the progress that’s been made exceeds any expectations that most of us had for it.
That said, no one at Memphis International Airport is taking victory laps. Rather, they appear gratified by the improvements that have been made since the direct hit that took place when Delta Air Lines blew up its Memphis hub, but rather than celebrating, they seem to be redoubling their efforts.
Credit Given Where Credit Due
The aim of the Grizzlies partnership was to create buzz for the airport as part of the impressive communications work by Red Rover and directed by the Glen Thomas (whose public information officer title significantly understates his contributions to the airport), but these days, it seems that the airport is getting the best kind of marketing – word-of-mouth.
We received an email this week that asked us if we thought the airport is headed in the “right direction.” Our response was that it’s headed in the only direction it could go, because the demise of the hub left it with few options. The management team gets our credit for putting together a specific game plan, assembling the team to execute it, and adopting the attitude that it would do whatever it takes to compete for new flights.
Looking back, the approach wasn’t so much about gritty as it was gutsy.
Here’s the thing: the new Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority President and CEO Scott Brockman faced criticism for hiring a public relations professional and an air service guru in the form of Will Livsey, whose youthful demeanor belie a wealth of knowledge far beyond his years.
As they say, the speed of the leader is the speed of the team, so Mr. Brockman deserves kudos for ignoring the carping and staying on task. Today, the average airfare in Memphis is $93 less than it was in 2012, and in the past 12 months, 12 new flights and three new airlines have been announced for MEM. In addition, with 2016 only a few days old, another new flight has already been added.
Delta Does Memphis Priorities
Some friends of ours have suggested that we are overcompensating for our withering attacks on the airport under the old regime and starting the Delta Does Memphis movement, and we know some people profess to be stunned by our cheerleading. But here’s the thing: the purpose of Delta Does Memphis was to 1) give voice to frustrations and complaints and mount a call for change; 2) to put high airfares and reform of the airport’s fortress attitude toward the public at the top of the local agenda; and 3) to inspire a movement that could bring the community together to work for more airlines and lower ticket prices.
Perhaps, many of the 6,000 people who joined the Delta Does Memphis Facebook page paid more attention to our efforts on the first and second priorities, but ultimately, we had hoped that in coming together to fight for a different airport management and board, we could pivot to the third priority and leverage our united front to support the new approaches needed to rebound from the devastating impact of the closing of Delta Air Lines’ hub in June, 2013.
It was May, 2012, when we established Delta Does Memphis. Seven months later, our calls for a new chairman of the authority had been answered, and in January, 2014, the president of the authority also left six months ahead of schedule. At that time, in response to questions from the news media encouraging attacks on the new leadership, we regularly said: “Delta has left us in a deep, deep hole. The sooner we begin to shape our own future the better, but no one should mistake the fact that we will need to be patient because progress will not come fast or easy.”
Transitioning From Where We Are To Where We Need To Be
We think Airport Authority Chairman Pace Cooper said it well in a Memphis News article by veteran Memphis reporter Amos Maki: “While a lot of us are mad because we thought Delta promised us something, there’s not much to be gained by standing on that now because it’s past tense. That aircraft has flown. We are transforming to a more origin-and-destination airport, and that’s going to take a lot of collective steps, none of which will be overnight monumental, but each one individually contributory.”
As we say, the team at Memphis International Airport has already surpassed any predictions that we made in the wake of Delta’s hub closing, and they deserve acknowledgement that they have responded directly to the public’s mandate, particularly from those of us who were calling for a more transparent and customer-oriented operation that respected the public enough to tell them the truth.
Those standards have been met and surpassed. The new website is user-friendly, visually attractive, and more navigable than the old one, and best of all, the self-congratulatory attitude that flowed from the former board to the old website is a thing of the past. Now, customers appear to be at the center of the website’s purpose, and that core customer service principle is evident to us in the daily operations and public communications. Today, announcements about new flights have become so commonplace that they sometimes get modest media coverage.
Put simply, the airport has covered a lot of ground in the two and half years since Delta Air Lines eliminated its hub, and while we don’t want to be Pollyannish about the future, there’s no reason to be anything but encouraged about what’s been done and seeing it as a harbinger of the future.
Good News: Going Down In The Rankings
When asked to grade the last couple of years, Mr. Brockman gives it a B. “We are ahead of where we thought we’d be, but we haven’t made headway on airlines I thought we would,” he said. “We’re having great dialogues and our goal is to get in front of airlines to make our case and move the ball.”
Mr. Livsey said he left his job as network planner at American Airlines to join the airport management team because he “looked at the numbers and how bad the deficiencies (of service) were and I saw nothing but opportunity. We’re now pulling people from Little Rock.”
Back when the Delta hub dominated the Memphis air travel landscape, residents of the Memphis region often drove to Little Rock and even to Nashville in search of lower airfares to the point that television news photographed the many cars in the parking lots there with Shelby County license plates.
The fact that there are Little Rock residents now driving to Memphis for air service reflects the most prominent measurement of the airport’s progress: lower airfares. There was a time with the dominance of Delta Air Lines hub that Memphis was perennially at the top of the list for cities with the highest airfares. In fact, in 2011, Memphis was #2 for the second highest average domestic airfares in the U.S. “When I started, we were at #8 (for highest airfares),” said Mr. Livsey, “and now we’re probably about #28.”
Repositioning The Airport
Mr. Brockman added: “We are quite a few spots below Little Rock in fares and we’ve narrowed the gap between us and Nashville. Every dollar makes people less inclined to drive I-40 (to other airports). I knew we could get to where we are, but it materialized faster than I expected. Some things happened along the way. We didn’t expect Delta to cut down to 19 flights a day. Allegiant looked at Memphis and said they could have seven destinations before end of the year. We got to six and we’ll add one after first of year. They see us having 30 flights a year in 12-15 years.”
That’s not to mention that Memphis now has nonstop flights to about 30 cities which include Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Cancun, New York City, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Orlando, and Miami.
Mr. Thomas measures progress in positive messages from the public. He said: “I think the biggest benefits of the Grizzlies/Tony Allen partnership have been twofold: 1) expanding our audience and reaching thousands of passengers and potential passengers, and 2) improving our image by aligning the airport with a beloved local community entity. Our Grizzlies partnership really just kicked in since we finalized that partnership at the end of the season. With in-game marketing, cross promotions, etc., we’re helping to educate the public about what we’re doing, what new flights are available, etc., while at the same time having fun with the fans.”
Most of all, he said that people no longer see the airport as “Delta but as part of the community. The Grizzlies partnership leads to people seeing the airport in a new light.”
While so much has changed, Mr. Brockman said one thing never does. “We (airport management) are still viewed as the keeper of all events. If someone doesn’t get a bag, they say this is the worst airport in the country. I explain that airlines control that, but I am working with the airlines on a customer service model program taken from the Purple Promise of FedEx. We want to make sure everyone has a memorable travel experience. We’re going to get to the point where we ask all our tenants to sign a pledge. We will all do the same things and embrace our customers. We will have then totally reversed the view of the airport. At that point, we will have turned the corner.”
Our strongest vote of confidence came last summer: We shut down the Delta Does Memphis Facebook group.