Southern Airways hopes to set trend with new Jackson to Nashville flight

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Southern Airways’ inaugural flight to Nashville begins taxiing from a private terminal at Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers airport at 8:55 a.m., five minutes ahead of schedule. In just about no time, you’re soaring above subdivisions, trailer parks, farms and the Ross Barnett Reservoir.

The flight isn’t leaving early nor is the experience so pleasant by happenstance, however.

Rather, Southern Airways’ business model is based on the ability to cut out some of the peskier aspects of commercial flying.

Mississippi Today's R.L. Nave takes a selfie before boarding Southern Airways first flight to Nashville.

R.L. Nave

Mississippi Today’s R.L. Nave takes a selfie before boarding Southern Airways first flight to Nashville.

First of all, travelers park right in front of the terminal and at no cost. There are also no Transportation Security Administration screeners — passengers undergo an electronic background check prior to the flight — and therefore there is no need to remove one’s shoes, belts, laptop computers or toiletries.

And instead of waiting 30 minutes before departure to begin boarding, Capt. Bob Ecton huddles with passengers as soon as everyone on his passenger list has arrived to go over safety procedures.

Keith Sisson, Southern Airways’ chief marketing officer and a co-founder, said the company is opening up the experience of traveling like wealthy people to the commercial traveler.

“We get you there with a quality of service that is very similar to what someone gets on their own private aircraft,” Sisson told Mississippi Today, which embarked on the maiden voyage of Jackson’s newest air route on Monday.

The flights leave daily (except Saturdays) at 9 a.m from the Atlantic Aviation terminal in Jackson. About an hour later, you arrive at the executive terminal in Memphis, operated by Orlando-based Signature Flight Support.

A Cessna 208 Caravan, originally designed to carry freight from small airports to hubs for FedEx.

R.L. Nave/Mississippi Today

A Cessna 208 Caravan, originally designed to carry freight from small airports to hubs for FedEx.

After a shaky landing due to strong ground winds, we spend about 15 minutes on the ground, pick up additional passengers and enjoy complimentary popcorn and filtered water, and are back aboard the nine-seat, single-propeller Cessna 208 Caravan, designed in 1984 to carry cargo for FedEx. All together, it takes two hours and 45 minute to get to Nashville.

The announcement of Southern Airways’ new service came this summer, after the Mississippi Legislature approved a bill to reshape the Jackson Airport Authority from a body whose members are appointed by Jackson city officials to one where state officials pick the members. Backers of that legislation raised questions about the management of the airport under the Jackson-appointed leadership, pointing mainly to the loss of Southwest Airline in 2013.

Southwest’s departure was part of an industry-wide trend for larger carriers to jettison medium and small sized markets like Jackson, leaving a question mark about the airport’s viability even though it remained profitable.

As Southwest was taking off, Southern Airways Express was formed. Records from the Mississippi Secretary of State show the company was founded November 2013. Stan Little, its chief executive officer, lives in Hernando (the company is officially domiciled in Southaven). Sisson is a Biloxi native currently living in Pittsburgh to help get Southern Airways’ new mid-Atlantic service off the ground. Capt. Ecton, the pilot, lives in the St. Louis area.

Southern’s primary focus is its service from Memphis to Destin, Fla. Little, the CEO, said the Jackson-Memphis-Nashville service route has been in the works for a couple of years.

“These two capital cities have a huge economic connection through law, health care, accounting, education, government, and leisure travel. The demand is tremendous, and we’re pleased, as Mississippi’s flagship airline, to be filling the need,” Little said through a news release.

Until recently, Southern Airways served the Jackson market but flew out of Madison. Moving to the main Jackson airport allows pilots to come in lower — about 200 feet above ground as opposed to the 400 feet small airports require for visibility reasons —and puts the airline on Internet travel sites such as Travelocity.

Sisson, the marketing chief, said the company’s growth strategy is two-pronged: to “beat the car” at the best price. The Jackson-Nashville route, for example, beats the car by cutting the total travel time it would take to drive by half.

Pricewise, a roundtrip fare to Nashville on Southern Airways booked two weeks in advance costs about $475, according to Travelocity. The same trip on American Airlines takes more than four hours because it requires a 54-minute-long layover in Charlotte and costs around $400 on the same website.

The new route was the result of talks with Jackson airport officials and local businesses such as Butler Snow, Metropolitan Bank and Horne LLP, a CPA firm, all of which have Nashville offices.

“No doubt that is something that our Mississippi businesses have been desiring for some time,” said Pam Ware, chief operations officer, Metropolitan Bank, in a media statement.

Southern Airway Express Capt. Bob Ecton prepares for landing at the Jackson airport.

R.L. Nave/Mississippi Today

Southern Airways Express Capt. Bob Ecton prepares for landing at the Jackson airport.

Liston Sage, a spokesman for the Jackson airport, said airport officials haven’t given up trying to lure a big carrier but that the airport is also focused on attracting what is known in the airline industry as ultra-low-cost carriers.

To help, the airport developed an incentive program for new carriers such as Southern Airways that involves waiving all airport fees in the first year of service and reducing the fees, which are calculated using a formula that considers factors such as destinations and size of the aircraft, by 50 percent in the second year of operation.

Sisson said Southern Airways plans to make the Jackson-Nashville a true nonstop, avoiding the Memphis stop. In the next year, the company hopes to offer service to New Orleans and to Atlanta to compete with Delta.

While major airlines increasingly move towards hub cities, Sisson believes travelers want more destination options — an opportunity he believes his company and its smaller aircraft requiring less red tape is positioned to tap.

“If there is a trend, we’re setting it,” he said.