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In the South, one airline bets big on small

Southern Airways Express is betting small, providing small-plane service between cities in the South. The airline uses small airports with no crowds and no TSA lines. A typical Southern aircraft seats nine passengers.

Airline mergers mean seemingly fewer choices when it comes to flying. But in the South, a new carrier has sprung up. It’s banking that small planes and small airports mean smaller hassles.

At Lakefront Airport in New Orleans,  the tarmac is flanked by green marsh. An Art Deco terminal sits on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Lakefront handles about 50 flights a day, says Brayton Matthews with Flight Line First, one of the airport’s operators. Mostly corporate clients, like big law firms.

“If they can put five attorneys on an airplane, fly them in here at 7 o’clock in the morning, do the business they need to do and have them back in their office, it saves them plenty of money and plenty of time,” Matthews says.

That’s partly because Lakefront is so low-key. You pull up, park -- for free! -- walk a few steps into the terminal, scoop some free popcorn, drink a free soda. When the plane’s ready, you walk a few more feet and get on. That’s it.

Now a new carrier offers this experience to anybody.

"We’re not going to frisk your grandmother," says Southern Airways Express chief operating officer Keith Sisson, as he lands from Florida. “You know, you can bring as much shampoo as you want.”

The plane is full -- all nine seats. A mix of business and pleasure travelers.

“This is a private plane experience, but we sell it by the seat to the general public,” Sisson says.

Based in Memphis, Southern flies to cities like Oxford, Miss., and Destin, Fla. -- places people usually drive between. Fares run about $300 round trip.

Airline analyst Mike Lum, based in Dallas, says the business model is unique. He estimates Southern needs six people on each flight to cover its costs.

“And can they get the message out?,” he asks. “It’s very expensive to market.”

So far much of that’s happening by word of mouth. Boarding the plane from New Orleans to Memphis, first-time customer Michelle Dorian was practically giddy at the lack of a body scanner.

“I know, can you believe that?” she says. “And I even have a corkscrew with me. They haven’t asked.”

Southern Airways Express is banking that kind of rediscovered freedom, and the saved time of driving, is worth the price to fly.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.
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