JACKSON Minutes after the Mississippi House of Representatives passed the airport "takeover" bill after hours of debate and a Democratic filibuster attempt, Carl Newman traced his fingers across a wall-sized aerial photograph of the airport, speaking with calm confidence about his plans, including continuous, ongoing talks with a new low-cost carrier.
"There is one airline that we continually talk to about providing service, but we haven't been able to land them, yet," the chief executive officer of the Jackson Municipal Airport said. "But we stay in contact with an airline that could provide service to Orlando, direct service to Orlando. And if that service is successful, we'd be then looking to expand service to Las Vegas.
"And if you search a little bit, you will probably find out who it was," Newman said, laughing. "And this will be a low-cost carrier."
A quick search for "low-cost carrier" and the two locations brings up two possible results: Allegiant and Southwest, which pulled out of Jackson in June 2014. The proponents of the "takeover" bill, SB 2162, use Southwest's departure as a reason for the State of Mississippi to take more control of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.
As for why Southwest left and will not come back for some time, Newman said its departure was the result of a company-wide restructuring and refocus. At the same time Southwest began to cut back on flights from Jackson, Newman said, the carrier also began to switch from smaller airports to larger ones, and then began to add in international flights.
"The short answer to the question is that it is going to be a while before Southwest Airlines comes back," Newman said, possibly narrowing the field to Allegiant, a company known for its affordable and diversified routes, which has reportedly considered coming to Jackson since at least 2014.
Newman would not confirm the carrier, however, and Allegiant could not be immediately reached for comment, so it is speculation at this point.
'Not Resting on Our Laurels'
Newman said that although Southwest has left, the airport administration has not "rested on our laurels." He said the airport entered into a contract with the firm InterVistas, a Vancouver-based company, to study the "capture area" from which the airport pulls customers. Surprisingly, the results of the study showed that 91 percent of the metro area's population chooses to come to Jackson's airport despite the anecdotal cries of Jackson residents driving to New Orleans and Memphis, Newman said.
The JMAA will continue to gather more of the same information to enable it to sell the airport to other low-cost carriers. On April 2, the JMAA will post a simple, six-point survey on its website wherein area residents can voice their desired destinations for expansion as well as how often they would go there. This information would give the JMAA the bait, so to speak, to catch the fish that is the as-yet unnamed low-cost carrier.
"And I think that when we have that information that will give us a good idea of what we need to do, and we can begin then to pull the numbers together for the airlines about those locations, and the other thing they are doing is developing an incentive program package for a new service," Newman said.
"And when we have that, we are going to go out and hit it hard and sell it."
The idea that the JMAA is in negotiation with a new low-cost carrier is consequential because it has been one of the central arguments Republicans in both houses of the Legislature used to defend and promote the controversial airport "takeover" bill. The legislation's author, Sen. Josh Harkins of Flowood, used the argument over and over during discussions and interviews to promote the bill re-organizing the JMAA Board.
"I keep asking what's been done since (Southwest Airlines left)..." Harkins said on from the Senate floor March 3, the day the bill passed that chamber, "and I haven't heard any answers. I haven't heard anyone say anything about what's been done to bring other airlines in."
Republican lawmakers from outside the capital city announced in January a plan to take control of the Jackson airport.
A Focus on East Metro Parkway
Another argument the bill's promoters have used was the lack of development along the East Metro Parkway to the east of the airport, which is about to begin its second phase of construction, connecting Lakeland Drive to Old Brandon Road.
"All of Phase Two, all of segment two, is on airport land. That was one of our contributions to the commission. The land is ours and remains ours," Newman said.
He is referring to the East Metro Corridor Commission, made up mayors from Brandon, Pearl and Flowood, as well as the airport. Newman had nothing but good things to say about the other members of the commission, and the parkway plays a huge part in developing more of the airport land, he said.
"You know that the East Metro Corridor is one of our focus areas. You will hear people talking about (how) the airport has all this land and hasn't developed it," Newman said. "What they don't say and what we have been standing up and saying recently is, well, until the road went in, in 2013 for part of it, you know you couldn't get to it. And you can't get to the part down here (phase two) until the road gets to it."
Sen. Josh Harkins owns and lists land near the Jackson Airport. He says it's not a conflict of interest, though.
One parcel of land, recently certified by Entergy as "shovel ready," is 211 acres directly adjacent to the airport. Newman said it was ideal for certain companies that had approached the airport, but that worries about relationships between certain governmental bodies caused concern, and eventually drove the potential buyers away.
"I personally reached out to folks that I think might have an interest in being here," Newman said. "Let me just tell you one of the things that I hear from folks when we talk about this, and one of them is a pretty large aircraft manufacturer and service firm. And what they have said to me is (that) one of the things that we really look at is the access, and that the weather will be conducive to our operations."
"But the first thing they ask, that comes out of their mouths, is are all of the entities on board? So, is the local government on board, is the state on board, are the economic development folks on board, and do they get along?"
Newman paused for a breath, leaning back in his chair.
"And if the answer to that question is, no, then they strike your name off the list. And so they won't even waste their time to engage in that if that's the case. Now that was that firm, but I have to think that others think similarly," he added.
Newman said that, more than anything, the support that he has had from the current JMAA board is essential to any and all development at the airport moving forward, calling his board members "super."
Read more about the Jackson airport and the "takeover attempt" at jfp.ms/airport. Email city reporter Tim Summers, Jr. at [email protected] See more local news at jfp.ms/localnews.