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Old Posted May 6, 2010, 3:21 PM
Johnny Ryall Johnny Ryall is offline
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AirTran launches regular service out of Tunica airport
The Commercial Appeal | By Wayne Risher

AirTran Flight 1578's arrival at Tunica Municipal Airport this morning is cause for celebration in a gambling mecca that wants more well-heeled air travelers. It should give Tunica a leg up in efforts to land more commercial flights and better serve private planes ferrying international passengers like Canadian gamblers and German manufacturers, officials say. A single flight won't position Tunica's airport to compete with its northern neighbor in Memphis, but it could become an attractive alternative for some travelers. "We have great support from the private sector that will help us grow our airport and grow our tourism product," said Webster Franklin, president and CEO of Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This will also benefit citizens. In Greenwood, Greenville, Clarksdale, Helena, they will have another opportunity, a closer, more hassle-free airport when they make their travel plans."

The round-trip service from Atlanta on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays is made possible by a $4.5 million investment by Harrah's Casino Tunica in a partnership with Orlando-based AirTran. "The Atlanta market has always been a good market when you look at the (air) charter program," Franklin said. "It's a large number of people, and it's an untapped gaming market." With AirTran, travelers get easy connections to Tunica from nearly 50 cities in the carrier's network. Memphis airport officials aren't worried. AirTran operates four daily round-trips between Atlanta and Memphis and is credited with moderating historically high air fares out of Memphis. "The flight, as is the case with previous charter and airline flights (serving Tunica), is very limited in scope and is subsidized by Tunica casinos," said Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority president and CEO Larry Cox. "I wish them well, but there will be no impact on Memphis."

Cliff Nash, Tunica County Airport Commission executive director, said in terms of additional commercial flights, "What we would like is something that is unique and is not available in the Memphis market. We do anticipate there will be lot of folks who, instead of driving into Memphis if they're south of here, would come here instead." Internet prices for selected flights in June were higher out of Tunica than Memphis. However, there were attractive package deals out of Atlanta, such as round-trip air fare plus three nights at Harrah's Casino Tunica or Gold Strike for under $400. Nash said AirTran service, coupled with expected volume of 80,000 to 85,000 boardings this year, should help lift the facility into an FAA classification called primary airport status. That means better odds of gaining FAA grants for future improvements.

As Tunica rolls out the red carpet today for passengers on a next-generation Boeing 717-200, a $1.5 million, 10,000-square-foot terminal building is on track for completion in August. It will help meet expansion goals that include accommodation of foreign travelers. A gaming charter from Toronto had to stop in Memphis to get passengers through customs before it proceeded to Tunica, Nash said. With a German company building a 500-employee steel pipe plant in Tunica, on-site customs processing would become more advantageous. The current building project was conceived as an addition to a proposed 40,000-square-foot main terminal that was put on hold when the national economy soured. After Harrah's officials revealed they were boosting charter programs 20-30 percent and negotiating to bring in AirTran, airport officials decided to build the addition first as a temporary fix. "We're really excited about AirTran and we're really happy Harrah's is supporting the community and helping us with this project," Nash said. "I hope as an airport we can impress AirTran so much they'll say, 'Hmmm, Tunica is a pretty good market.' "
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