Jackson’s McKellar – Sipes Airport

From AcrossTennessee.com, March, 2010

(Jackson) - It is a short walk- one minute, six seconds- from the baggage claim area to a car parked in the free (yes free) parking lot at Jackson Tennessee’s McKellar- Sipes airport. This can be a forgotten one amongst Tennessee’s six airports with regular passenger service, but the city of Jackson, Madison County, the Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson-Madison County Airport Authority, have hopes for the tiny airport known to pilots and airline employees as MKL.

How tiny? The last quarter of 2009, Memphis International Airport had 1,143, 532 passengers emplaning, followed by Nashville  with 1,139,363. Further down the list was Knoxville with 211, 790 and Chattanooga with 73,025. Statistics were not available for the last quarter for Tri cities airport located between Bristol, Greenville and Johnson City, but one fourth of last year’s traffic worked out to 54,000 boardings. And that puts MKL’s 748 boardings into perspective. Three months at MKL worked out to about ninety minutes of activity at Memphis International.

But MKL is actively promoting itself. It is the closest passenger airport to not only Jackson, but also Dyersburg, Brownsville and Covington.  Union City and Martin are closer to Paducah, Kentucky’s Barkley Airport, which has twice-daily service to and from Chicago.

Steve Smith, executive director of the airport authority, drives an airport police SUV down the runway showing off the facilities. He mentions growing up in McNairy County “I was one of the teenagers Sheriff Buford Pusser used to chase for drag racing,” he says. One can easily look at the quiet airport and see the potential for racing, but today he acts more like a rancher taking a visitor in a pickup showing off the spread. He has been director of the airport since January, 2009.

“We have had 737-800’s from Southwest Airlines come here for National Guard deployment," he says pointing to a hanger in the southeastern section of MKL. We head to the control tower.

The air traffic manager is Bob Snuck who says this is one of 245 airport towers across the nation staffed by private contractors certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, rather than FAA employees.

Matt Simms directs a private plane down the runway.  “There he is right there. That’s a little Grumman airplane flown by one of our local doctors,” says fellow controller Jim Treakle. He takes off to the west.  "The wind velocity is up to 10 knots today. We normally send aircraft on our longest runway but not if the crosswind is above 5 knots.”

“The tower has been here since 1995. I’ve been here since 1991 I used to work at the flight service center. The biggest challenge is to be able to see the airplanes. We don’t have any radar. You have an airplane calling in and we can’t see them,” Treakle says.

MKL had its birth in 1941 as an army training airport. It has been a civilian airport since shortly after the end of the war.

Until January, 2008, MKL was serviced by Montana–based Big Sky Airlines with one round-trip flight between Jackson and Cincinnati daily. Smith became director a year later. He had worked as a deputy sheriff, owner of a flight school and a boat salesman. “This is what I was meant to do,” he says

For over a year after the service ended, Jackson residents had to fly out of Memphis or Nashville. “After Big Sky, Great Lakes Aviation took interested in the line, they said were coming were coming but they never came. They eventually said no,” Smith remembers.

“We looked for a carrier and tried to find a carrier that will best fit our niche. We had nine different companies look at us,” Smith says. Mesaba Air, which is part of Northwest Airlines, withdrew their bid. That left us with about six different bids. A lot of criteria were considered including the age of the equipment, and ability to operate efficiently," he says.  And residents of Jackson were also consulted. "We went to the community and 69%, give or take, wanted Nashville because of Southwest Airlines."

In addition to the route, also up for grabs was federal funding from the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. In 1978 when the airlines were deregulated, the federal government began offering subsidies to places like Jackson that were below the radar of many airlines due to small passenger volume and hence, fewer opportunities for revenue.

“We wanted to get away from EAS. If this if Essential Air Service funding went away tomorrow we want this to be a profitable airport," Smith says.  There is no limit to how many carriers can fly out of MKL, but only one company can have EAS funding.  “Pacific Wings based in Maui, Hawaii said ‘we’ll go to Nashville and eventually to Atlanta.’ We were able to work with Pacific Wings. Pacific Wings flies in Hawaii under the name Pacific Wings. In New Mexico Air it flies Taos and Albuquerque routes as New Mexico airlines.  Georgia Aviation flies a Macon, Atlanta, Athens route.”

“We looked at companies that would be efficient. Pacific Wings didn’t own a plane over five years old. Looking at others, Mesaba was flying 30-year-old Saab 34s. If you’re carrying eight to nine passengers and you have thirty four seat passenger airplanes, that’s not efficient,” Smith says. “Pacific Wings' on time rate was ninety eight percent. Their break down time was almost zero because they’re new airplanes.”

There was more to the offer. “Their company’s motto said they wanted to be eco-friendly and leave as little carbon footprint as possible,” Smith says. “I’m really not into that. I am into moving people from point A to point B efficiently, smooth and economically.” On August 30, 2009, Tennessee Air took to the skies.

“We worked out a deal to do maintenance here. All planes stop through Jackson. The addition of Tennessee Skies created eighteen airline jobs. That’s a little better paying than typical jobs. Not only do we have Pacific Air’s Southeast corporate offices but maintenance too,” according to Smith.

Driving through the parking lot, plates from neighboring West Tennessee counties are most popular. Walking into the terminal shows a clean, modern facility. No airport cafés are there, just a two vending machines.  Thirty five seats are in the front area, along with a counter for Tennessee Skies and Hertz Rental Car. At this time, there is no security screening but the equipment is there, with anticipation to be set up soon, Smith says.

Tennessee Skies operates three outbound flights every weekday and two on Saturdays and Sundays. They use Cessna Caravans each with a nine passenger capacity. It is a fifty minute flight, of one hundred thirty one miles, to Nashville.

In Nashville, the flight stops about two and a half miles from the main terminal due to the lack of security screening. Passengers boarding other airlines take the shuttle to the main terminal and have their baggage screened there. Passengers can also remain on the flight and about ten minutes after landing, the plane is moving again, for a one hour, twenty minute flight to Atlanta.

“We have a lot of competition with the Interstate,” Smith says. “It’s really easy to get into your car and drive from Memphis to Jackson and then continue to Nashville.  We have to be better and liberate them from that drive. We don’t charge for parking and have 24 hour security. Some other things we have been looking at are free coffee or bottled water.”

The airport and airlines is also a plus for attracting industry.

“Industry recruiting is tough now. I’m involved quite a lot,” he says. “Used to when you did recruiting, companies would visit your community and get to like you and come back for a second visit. Now that’s all on the internet. If somebody thinks about locating they will look at the city, county and airport websites. To have a connection to a major airport doesn’t hurt.”

Leslie Sullivan of Houston is waiting for her flight to Atlanta, then back home. “This is my very first time on such a small plane. It is so small you can hear the wind the engines which sounds like a lawn mower. I closed my eyes the whole way,” she says. “It’s strange. You can look out see the wings and hear the propellers going. It’s a unique experience I will share with my children!”