MUSCLE SHOALS — Northwest Alabama Regional Airport Director Barry Griffith said he hopes the return of an early morning flight will reverse the trend of declining boardings and local travelers using other airports.
Griffith said Thursday that Silver Airways has agreed to move the morning departure to Atlanta to 6:15 a.m., which gives business travelers the opportunity to do a day’s work and return home that evening.
The new schedule begins April 1.
Shoals Chamber of Commerce President Steve Holt said the return of the earlier departure should be a boon for business travelers.
“That just makes all the difference in the world to us,” Holt said.
He said the current departure time of 9:15 a.m. is not conducive to business people because they arrive at their destination in the afternoon. The result is business travelers use other airports that better accommodate their schedules, Holt said.
A second daily flight will depart Muscle Shoals at 11 a.m. Daily flights from Atlanta to the Shoals will arrive at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
The schedule from the Muscle Shoals airport will be different on weekends — arrival at 11:30 a.m. and departure at noon on Saturdays, with departures at 11:05 a.m. and arrivals at 5:30 p.m. on Sundays.
Griffith said he was able to persuade Silver Airways officials to return the early morning flight during a meeting with airline representatives in late February. Griffith and Barry Auchly, a member of the airport’s board of directors and chairman of the Shoals Chamber of Commerce’s Air Services Committee, attended the meeting with Allen Tomlinson, president of A. Tomlinson Sims Advertising, which is creating a marketing plan for the airport.
Silver Airways began providing daily, nonstop flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Oct. 1 after being awarded a multimillion-dollar Essential Air Service contract last summer.
The Mississippi communities of Tupelo, Greenville and Laurel/Hattiesburg, and Lewisburg, W.Va., were included in the $16 million EAS contract.
Local officials were excited about the new airline’s arrival. Silver promised flights to Atlanta, the preferred destination of most Shoals travelers, aboard the familiar 34-seat Saab Turboprop aircraft. But the airline’s takeoff has been anything but smooth.
Silver has been plagued with on-time issues and canceled flights, airport officials said.
The airport has seen boardings dip as much as 77 percent compared to the same month in 2012, when Delta Air Lines was providing air service.
“We brought data along with us relative to their on-time performance and their canceled flights,” Auchly said. “They came prepared to talk about it as well. They think they have several things going that will improve service.”
Auchly said service has improved during the past three weeks and he expects the trend to continue.
He said Silver also will bring an additional airplane into the plan, which should help reduce the number of flights canceled because of mechanical issues. The plane will be stationed in Atlanta.
Auchly, executive vice president of American Wholesale Book Co., said the delayed flights could be a result of the airline taking on a huge task while working out “the operational kinks.”
He said the airline’s service will improve in time as it gains more experience. “The thing that impressed me is that they recognized the need to improve their performance level on canceled and on-time flights,” Auchly said.
“They have pledged to improve both issues.” Silver Airways spokesman Steve Bennett said the earlier flight will require the airline to keep a plane in Muscle Shoals overnight.
“This is going to bring some real nice benefits, especially when you look at reliability and connectivity,” Bennett said. “Just having the airplane there is going to improve the reliability of the service.”
Griffith said Silver also is adopting a new reservation system, which should improve the way travelers book flights. Airport Board Chairman Rick Elliott has voiced displeasure with the airline’s performance. “I’m disappointed, and that’s being more than fair to them,” Elliott said.
Elliott said the airline suffers from a lack of leadership.
“It looks good on paper,” Elliott said. “The brochure looks good. I just call it LOL - ‘lack of leadership.’ To me it’s been cataclysmic what they’ve done to air service out there.”
On a positive note, Elliott is optimistic the return of the early morning departure will help the airline’s lackluster boardings.
“There for a while that flight was full when it was a Delta flight,” Elliott said. “It seems to me it accounted for 40 percent of the boardings.”
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.