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Lack of patrons concerns airport

MUSCLE SHOALS (AP) — Officials at Northwest Alabama Regional Airport are hoping their planned efforts to bring in more customers will take off.

John Lehrter, who directs the Muscle Shoals airport, says the number of people boarding commercial flights there is down about 15 percent since this time a year ago.

"We keep promoting and advertising," said Lehrter, who is leaving the director's post at the airport after 20 years. "In the past, it has had no impact."

Matthew Hea, who will take over as director of Northwest Alabama Airport on Jan. 1, said he is concerned by the decrease in boardings and wants an advertising campaign touting the airport's strong points.

Hea said he wants to increase boardings to more than 10,000 people annually, which would increase the airport's Federal Aviation Administration entitlement from $150,000 to $1 million.

"We can't advertise directly for Northwest Airlink, but we can advertise for the airport and the use of it," he said.

In 1986, Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Republic Airlines provided flights from the Shoals to Atlanta and Memphis, respectively. The airport boarded more than 18,000 passengers that year.

Northwest Airlink took over the flights to Memphis in 1987, and for a brief time, the airport was served by a third airline, Iowa Airways, in 1988-89. GP Express Airlines took over the Atlanta flights in 1992, but left Muscle Shoals two years later.

That left the area with a single commuter airline that provided daily flights to Memphis.

The decline

Boardings dipped below 10,000 in 1993 and have continued to fall since then except for slight increases in 1999, 2005 and 2006.

Northwest Airlink provides three daily flights from Muscle Shoals to Memphis, but an early morning flight designed for business travelers and added in June 2006 makes a stop in Tupelo, Miss.

Lehrter said there have been times when Muscle Shoals travelers couldn't get Memphis flights because the slots were filled by Tupelo passengers.

That has left some Shoals passengers scrambling to get flights from Huntsville and Birmingham.

Shared connection

Terry Anderson, executive director of the Tupelo Regional Airport, said while they board 1,400-1,500 passengers a month on Northwest Airlink, they're losing 250-300 more, partly because of sharing a connection with Muscle Shoals.

Before sharing that flight, Tupelo was boarding about 20,000 passengers annually on Northwest Airlink. That number decreased by about 3,000 between July 2006 and June.

What Lehrter and Anderson would like to see is a direct, early morning flight from their airports to Memphis.

"We have a limited schedule," Lehrter said. "If the schedule does not meet (travelers') needs, we're not going to get them no matter what we do."

Jo Ann Maxwell, who works with the local airport on behalf of the Shoals Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has already asked Northwest Airlines about providing a direct, early-morning flight to Memphis.

That would require the plane's crew to stay overnight in Muscle Shoals and Tupelo, she said.

Darren Shannon, a spokesman for Northwest Airlines, declined comment on the airport's request.

"We would not discuss such things in public," Shannon said. "It would all be speculative."

Lehrter said he and the chamber also have spoken to officials with ASA about providing the area with another Atlanta connection.

"I've been over there at least twice with (chamber president) Steve Holt and they won't talk to us anymore," Lehrter said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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