Experts look into Memphis airport price problems

MEMPHIS, TN - (WMC-TV) – It's only going to get worse! Those are the word from experts watching what is happening at Memphis International Airport, where fliers are being forced to pay high prices or cancel plans altogether.

With empty gates and deserted terminals Action News Five Investigator Andrew Douglas shows you what those same experts say is needed to stop the bleeding.

Lina Khan works for the New America Foundation, a Washington D.C. think tank that studies trends in the airline industry.

"The airlines are in bad shape and it's only going to get worse for places like Memphis," Khan said. "It's not because there's kind of insufficient demand for Memphis or it doesn't have enough commercial activity. It's Memphis isn't fitting into whatever calculus Delta has to try and figure out how it wants its network to function."

Khan says Memphis is going the way of airports in St Louis and Cincinnati. Both were big hubs that saw dramatic drops in flight options and passenger traffic over the last decade, leaving empty terminals and gates where once passengers waited for planes.

"I think that's one of the most alarming things that we've seen is that you have a handful of executives at these airlines basically switching off the lights in various cities," Khan said.

Studies show when flights leave, so does business and jobs. Memphis has already lost major conferences and tourist dollars because of airport hassles and high airfares. And one out of four would-be Memphis fliers currently travel to Little Rock or Nashville to catch flights, hundreds of dollars cheaper.

"It isn't that the fares are just higher than anywhere else. They're excessive when you compare them to the household income here," said Tom Jones.

Former government aide turned columnist Tom Jones represented Memphis at a recent D.C. conference about this very issue.

"If we deregulated 30 years ago to increase competition and increase more airlines and its gone just the other way something isn't working," Jones said. "We need to do more than form a support group. We need to create a movement to change things."

Jones suggests banding leaders together from other cities and taking their concerns to Congress.

"Congressman Cohen is on the transportation committee in the House and how can he be a part of trying to address this problem," he said.

I called Congressman Steve Cohen to see if he thought congressional pressure would help.

"The fact is we have regulation but we deregulated the airline industry and it was a mistake to deregulate to the extent that we did," Cohen said. "We'll look into the idea of seeing if there is anything we can do together with some of other congress people from Cincinnati, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, although I don't think that's going to make much of a difference in this climate."

"This is the best example of an aerotropolis in the United States," said former Memphis city planner Dexter Muller. He hopes long-term relief comes from a bolstered plan to present Memphis as an aerotropolis - maximizing its runways, roads, river and rail system.

"The issue is that the airport is not fully leveraged. If you look at the areas around it, we've let those areas deteriorate," he said.

He says by attracting more business to the city itself, Memphis International Airport can lure and support more airlines with more competitive prices.

"It's a gradual improvement and it probably will take 20 plus years," he said.

Quite a flight delay. Some experts say likely won't take off still.

"When all the trends are pointing one way its kind of difficult to somehow think that Memphis is going to see a huge influx of flights," Lina Khan said.

The latest numbers from Memphis International Airport show passenger traffic is down nearly 20 percent from this time last year. Delta says high fuel prices and unprofitable flights have contributed to the cuts. The Memphis Airport Authority announced this month $1 million in incentives to attract new air service to make up for Delta's downsizing.

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