Delta Airlines has been the dominant carrier in Memphis for years, but Southern Airways Express, a new, small airline, plans to compete for a piece of the market initially by offering nonstop flights to the Gulf Coast, starting around Memorial Day.
"You don't go through security. You don't have to wait. You get there 15 minutes before the flight takes off, get on board, and you're dropped off exactly where you want to be," said Stan Little, the company's CEO. "I think it's going to be a real winning asset for us as a corporation and for the city."
Southern Airways held a press conference at the Olive Branch Airport last week. Attendees were able to meet the company's executive staff and view one of its nine-passenger, turbo-powered planes.
Southern Airways' flights will include New Orleans and Gulf Shores, Destin, and Panama City. Planes will fly out of General DeWitt Spain Airport in Memphis and the Olive Branch Airport.
"It's a long, hard drive from Memphis to get down to the Gulf beaches, where so many Memphians go, and it's not a good way to get there," Little said. "It's not interstate all the way. You're on two-lane roads part of the time. It's just a headache. I think there's a real opportunity in Memphis to have a getaway-type airline for families."
Flights catering to business travelers are slated to begin this fall. Potential future destinations include Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Birmingham, and Gulfport and Jackson, Mississippi. Little said they're also looking at winter flights to Key West and Marathon, Florida for leisure travelers. Southern Airways tickets range from $129 to $249.
"These may not be the flights that can stop thousands of people from this region from flying out of Little Rock and Nashville, but it's in our best interest to support them as strongly as we possibly can," said Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting and founder of the Delta Does Memphis Facebook page. "It's easy for some to be dismissive of a carrier that offers nine seats a flight, but it's hard to dismiss the fact that every little bit helps."
Southern Airways isn't the only carrier bringing lower-cost fares to the Memphis market. Southwest Airlines will make its long-awaited arrival this fall.
"We're going to bring our legendary brand of low fares and the best customer service in the industry when we land in Memphis in November," Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said. "We also bring with us a robust route map that will give Memphis travelers low fares practically anywhere they want to go in the United States."
Larry Cox, president of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, appreciates the additions to the Memphis market.
"It's going to be great for the airport, Memphians, and for those who live in our encatchment area," Cox said. "It will give us an opportunity for really good competition [and] lower fares."