Nearly two years after Delta Air Lines announced its intention to leave the area, a Florida-based airline has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide federally subsidized air service to the Shoals.
Silver Airways, of Fort Lauderdale, was one of two airlines submitting proposals to provide commercial air service under the Essential Air Service program. The program provides money to commercial airlines to provide service to mostly rural airports.
On Tuesday, the transportation department notified local officials of an order announcing the selection of Silver Airways.
Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford said he was notified about 2 p.m. Tuesday.
“This is exciting news,” Northwest Alabama Regional Airport Director Barry Griffith said. “It’s great for the communities of northwest Alabama.”
Silver will fly 12 non-stop flights per week to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a 34-seat Saab 340B+ twin turboprop aircraft, an enhanced version of the plane that once provided flights to Memphis and Atlanta under the Northwest Airlink and Delta Connection banners.
Pinnacle Airlines operated as Delta Connection under an EAS agreement that had been awarded to Northwest Airlines before its merger with Delta.
Under the new order, Silver Airways also will operate in the Mississippi communities of Greenville, Tupelo and Laurel/Hattiesburg, as well as Lewisburg, W.Va.
Silver submitted an “all-or-nothing” proposal that included all five communities. All flights will go to Atlanta.
The combined annual subsidy is $16,098,538, according to the order. Delta was paid just less than $1.8 million to provide the service to and from Muscle Shoals in 2008.
A letter addressed to Dennis DeVany, chief of the EAS and Domestic Analysis Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, states Delta supports the EAS program, but no longer has suitable aircraft to serve EAS markets since it retired its fleet of Saab turboprops.
The letter, dated May 10, states if Silver is selected, Delta would be “willing to work with Silver on developing an interline and ticketing agreement, participation in the Delta SkyMiles frequent flyer program and provide Silver with booking capability on Delta.com.
Bradford said Delta has agreed to the ticketing arrangement, which allows travelers to book a flight out of the Shoals on Delta.com, fly to Atlanta on a Silver Airways plane, then transfer to a Delta plane in Atlanta with one ticket. Baggage also would be transferred to the Delta flight under the agreement.
Bradford said the agreement will help the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport and the Air Services Committee market and grow the new service.
The Saab 340B+ aircraft has a lavatory and flight attendant. The aircraft also features enhanced noise-canceling capabilities to increase passenger comfort.
According to the Silver Airways website, gosilver.com, the airline has purchased six of the Saab 340B+ aircraft.
The airline was previously known as Gulfstream International Airways. Gulfstream was awarded an EAS contract to provide air service to the Shoals in 2011.
The airline subsequently withdrew its proposal because it could not secure a ticketing agreement with Delta.
Griffith said he expects Silver to begin service in the late summer or early fall.
Mickey Bowman, vice president of Essential Air Service for Silver Airways, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
“We have been working diligently to get a viable replacement for Delta and return to the Atlanta market,” Griffith said.
Delta had been flying to Atlanta, but switched back to the Memphis International Airport with a stop in Tupelo to reduce expenses when it began utilizing a 50-seat regional jet to provide EAS service.
Griffith and Bradford said the local Air Services Committee, which is affiliated with the Shoals Chamber of Commerce, will join the Airport Authority to quickly begin efforts to market the new air carrier.
“Hopefully we will see enplanements continue to increase with the Air Services Committee focusing in marketing,” Griffith said. “I hope the citizens of north Alabama choose to utilize their airport.”
If annual boardings surpass 10,000 in a calendar year, the airport will receive $1 million in Federal Aviation Administration entitlement funds for airport improvement projects. About 7,343 people flew to and from the airport in Muscle Shoals in 2011.
Bradford said Muscle Shoals has committed $5,000 toward marketing the new air service.
The ultimate goal is to build loyalty to the new air service and get to a point where the airline can operate without a subsidy.
During a previous interview, Bowman said Silver needed to be selected in all five cities to make the service viable.
“I’ve got to give thanks to everybody, Barry, the Air Services Committee, for hanging in there and working on it,” Bradford said.
He pointed out all five communities and their respective airport directors worked together along with local, state and federal representatives in Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia to convince transportation officials that Silver would be the most viable air service provider.
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.