Collection of all posts on Jackson airport
The brawl over the Jackson municipal airport began several years ago as the airport quietly hummed along in Rankin County, out of sight and out of mind. Jackson Municipal Airport Authority CEO Dirk Vanderleest ran the airport for 35 years. Mayors and Commissioners came and went but Dirk was always there with his steady hands at the helm. Taken for granted he was as the airport continued to be forgotten by those in power.
So ignored was the airport that Mayor Harvey Johnson forgot to replace four commissioners when their terms expired. Such negligence was common to Harvey’s last administration as he repeatedly failed to nominate appointments to boards. Chokwe Lumumba assumed the purple and made it quite clear he was no Mayor who was just happy to get fat and happy. He took advantage of Harvey’s dereliction of duty and appointed three commissioners to the JMAA board in one day in November 2013. Mayor Lumumba later appointed two more commissioners to the board.
Mayor Lumumba’s appointments stirred no small amount of interest. Most cities traditionally appoint chamber of commerce-types and pilots to the boards of their respective airport authorities. There was nothing traditional about Mayor Lumumba’s nominations. He appointed a rabble-rousing preacher, a retired MDEQ bureaucrat, a nurse who was also a “radio personality”, and another preacher who also was a lawyer and a CPA.
Change came immediately to JMAA. The new board fired law firm Baker Donelson at its first meeting. Baker Donelson represented JMAA for over twenty years and had a sterling reputation. Such esteem didn’t matter as the new commissioners replaced the white=shoe law firm with attorney John Walker and his firm, the Walker Group. Mr. Walker is the consiglieri and close friend of Congressman Bennie Thompson. The Congressman completed his takeover of JMAA in one board meeting. However, the board hired four months later local political player and attorneys Regina Quinn and her husband, John May. It was whispered that they were hired to do the real work as the other law firm was not really qualified to handle the business of the airport. The employment of the Walker Group was considered to be a case of the Congressman exacting his tribute.
Such shenanigans would have gone unnoticed but for a disaster that befell the airport in December 2013- the loss of Southwest Airlines. Jackson landed Southwest with the help of Senator Trent Lott and the Wright amendment. The amendment prevented Southwest from establishing long routes from Dallas and forced it to stop at airports within a five state area that included Mississippi. Jackson benefited from these arrangements as it enjoyed nine Southwest flights per day.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer passengers flew out of Jackson on Southwest planes. The carrier reduced its flights until there were only four flights per day. Unfortunately for Jackson, the load factor continued to fall until it was only 66%. Airlines consider 85% to be a minimum load factor for flights. However, the final nail in the Southwest coffin we the 2014 expiration of the Wright Amendment. Jackson’s airport was on borrowed time as far as Southwest was concerned. Declining traffic and the expiration of regulations that forced Southwest to use Jackson meant the airline weighed Jackson’s future and Jackson was found to be wanting.
The timing of the decision could not have been worse as it happened to coincide with the appointment of the new board of commissioners. Rightly or wrongly, too many people blamed the JMAA board for “losing Southwest”. The Southwest loss was felt across central Mississippi. Passengers were forced to pay higher fares as the lower cost carrier left Jackson and the remaining airlines serving Jackson kept prices high as they enjoyed less competition. The business community suffered as travel costs increased. The loss of Southwest affected the economic development of cities as well as they found recruiting industries became more difficult without the availability of lower cost fares. They all have representatives and senators who serve in the Mississippi legislature. Senator Harkins found a receptive audience among many of his colleagues when he began to discuss his bill.
New board, loss of Southwest, major changes made at the airport. What else could take place, people asked. The unthinkable then happened. The steady hand who had guided the airport for so long announced six months later that he was retiring as CEO of the JMAA. This was the final straw as more than a few people asked what the hell is going on at the airport? More whispers said Mr. Vanderleest was leaving because he had enough of the new board. An airport that was forgotten for decades was suddenly the main topic of conversations in the business community. Politicians suddenly took notice as well. Enter Senator Josh Harkins, a product of Rankin County and a well-respected scion of a political family. He is also a commercial realtor by trade.
Senator Harkins argued that the airport was going down the wrong path and that a correction was needed. He said the Rankin County had no say in how the airport was managed even though the airport is in Rankin County. Passengers were paying more to fly out of Jackson when they could save a great deal of money by flying out of New Orleans or Memphis. The business community was forced to pay higher prices. He argued Jackson ignored others who were dependent on the airport for economic success. The good Senator filed a bill that would increase the board from five to nine members. Jackson, Rankin County, Madison County, the Governor, MDA, the Adjutant General, and Lieutenant Governor would appoint the members although the Governor would approve the nominations submitted by the Jackson city council, Rankin County, and Madison County. The new board would govern Hawkins Field as well although the city of Madison would keep Bruce Campbell field.
Needless to say the fight over the Senator’s proposal exploded in a fury at the legislature as the fight grew racial in nature. The Republicans flexed their muscle as the bill sailed through the Senate and then committee in the House with little changes. The bill made it to the floor of the House where all hell broke loose. The Democrats and Jackson delegation used every trick they knew but they had neither the numbers nor the tools to stop the bill.
That was the history lesson, now for the opinion. JJ opposes the airport “takeover bill”. This correspondent made a point to learn as much as possible about the airport. Despite the amount of coverage on this subject by the media, this correspondent is the only one who has attended the board meetings or read the financial statements.* Hours were spent reading, copying, and posting on this website the documents from the nineteen boxes that comprise the Baxter Wilson collection at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in order to give you, the readers, a true idea of how and why the airport was built.
The airport belongs to Jackson. Jackson faced an aviation crisis in the late 1950’s. The oncoming jet age meant Jackson was going to lose its Air National Guard flight squadrons to Meridian and Gulfport airports as Hawkins Field did not have the runways to handle jet airplanes. Commercial airline service for Jackson was also threatened as airlines began to replace their propeller driven planes with jets. City fathers and the business community teamed up to create a new airport. The construction of the airport was a project where politicians and businessmen actually got it right. Jackson actually built an airport without raising taxes or busting the budget.
It simply makes no sense to transfer the airport from Jackson to a regional authority. The airport should stay in Jackson’s hands. JJ makes several observations and recommendations about this fiasco.
1. The airport is Jackson’s property. Jackson spent over $150,000 to purchase land in Rankin County. The federal government provided matching funds.** The CAA (forerunner to FAA) provided $2 million in funds while the military provided funds as well. Jackson sold $3 million of revenue bonds to finance the rest of the project. The initial cost of construction was $8 million.
Keep in mind Jackson purchased the land. Jackson sold the bonds and paid them off as scheduled. Jackson leadership created the project. The Rankin County Board of Supervisors even passed a resolution thanking Jackson for building the airport in Rankin County. It is ironic that Jackson is now penalized for shrewd leadership by politicians who claim Jackson now has lousy leadership. Jackson can’t win for losing. The same Republicans who scream bloody murder over Kelo and passed a constitutional amendment a few years ago can’t wait to snatch away Jackson’s property. They were against it before they were for it.
2. The Jackson airport is making a profit. JMAA earned a profit over $3 million last year. JMAA hasn’t operated in the red even though enplanements are down 20% from several years ago due to the departure of Southwest Airlines. JMAA currently enjoys a cushion of $17 million in unrestricted cash. Mr. Newman has been able to keep costs under budget and improve revenue as it exceeded projections.
Mr. Newman recently unveiled a strategic improvement plan as well as an analysis of the airport’s market and passengers. Mr. Newman shows all the earmarks of a lean and hungry first-time CEO who wants to make a difference. He even appointed a manager for long-neglected Hawkins Field and has said more than $4 million in improvements are coming to the general aviation airport. In other words, the new management team has embarked on a path of growth for Jackson’s airports.
3. A new board will not bring back Southwest Airlines. Senator Harkins claims the loss of Southwest severely impacted the business community as well as the flying public of Mississippi. No argument there. However, Southwest did not leave because of a new board or because gate fees were too high. Southwest left due to basic economics. There was simply not enough demand to make serving the Jackson market profitable for Southwest. A load factor of 66% is still a load factor of 66% and four flights a day is still four flights a day. Southwest can’t conjure profits out of thin air if there are not enough passengers to meet the load factor standard of 85% as well as the costs of maintaining the service. Jackson lost Southwest because the passengers didn’t want Southwest. People can complain about losing Southwest but the reality is Southwest went where it was wanted. A new board simply is not going to bring back Southwest Airlines.
Mr. Newman is trying to bring a lower cost carrier to Jackson but it will be a tough slog to do so. There is currently a pilot shortage among regional carriers. Regional carriers are shedding flights as they are unable to hire enough pilots to service their routes. Republic Airlines filed bankruptcy after it was sued by Delta for this reason. The legislature can mandate what it wants but it will find out that it can’t mandate economics as the Soviets learned.
4. Takeover opponents screamed racism while they hurt themselves with their own racism. They made several critical mistakes even though the facts are on their side. The Jackson First crowd adopted an attitude of “me, me, me”. Not once did they acknowledge that the airport serves other communities. Businesses around the state depend on the airport. Cities and counties use it as a tool for economic development. It never occurred to them that the business community might have its own concerns. Instead of discussing dollars and cents they mainly discussed race. It never crossed their minds that there were concerns by people other than themselves that needed addressing. The Jackson First crowd likes to operate in a cocoon even as that cocoon becomes small and bankrupt.
There are white Republicans in Jackson such as Ashby Foote and Wyatt Emmerich who opposed the takeover but it never occurred to the Jackson First crowd to seek their help as they immediately began playing the race card. They shrieked about racism and Confederate springs as their judgement was clouded by their own racism. They ignored Jackson Republicans and business leaders who might have joined forces with them to fight the takeover. It is more important for this crowd to lose a fight if it works alone than winning a fight by working with whites. They lived by the race card and are apparently willing to die by the race card, just as the whites from the 1960’s did. What was it Nietzsche said about looking into the abyss?
5. The airport fight harmed race relations. Mr. Foote told this correspondent the takeover bill would poison race relations in Jackson. Events have proved him to be right as race relations in Jackson are more polarized than they have been for many years. It gave the race-baiters an emotional issue to use against whites and pushed black politicians who are more moderate and business-friendly into their camp.
6. The players should have to play. If MDA, the Governor, Rankin County, Madison County, the Power Puff Girls, or even Pufnstuf want to sit on the board, they should have to pay to do so. The bill shifts control and ownership of Jackson’s property to the new board of commissioners. Jackson should be compensated for the loss of its assets. The takeover is nothing short of a loss of property for Jackson. An appraisal should be made of the value of the airport. Divide the value by the number of commissioners on the new board. The final amount should be the value of a seat on the board. Jackson should receive the funds for each seat that is not appointed by the city.
It is no secret that Jackson needs a great deal of money. Its needs are many and its resources are few. It can’t raise taxes. The tax base is shrinking. Crumbling infrastructure. It can’t borrow much money to meet its infrastructure needs. A city’s core services are public health, roads, infrastructure, fire protection, and police services. The operation of the airport is not a core service. The majority of the passengers probably do not even live in Jackson.
It is common in corporate America to cut losses and shed divisions that are not central to a business’s core missions. Jackson has a crown jewel that does not add or subtract one dollar to its bottom line. Jackson should cash out the airport if possible. The airport is a source of pride for Jackson but Jackson needs money right now instead of puffed-up false pride. False pride is the root of many problems and Jackson is no exception. The airport is Jackson’s to sell or leverage but it is still Jackson’s airport.
7. If the legislature does anything, it should change the minimum qualifications to serve on a governing board for an airport. Nashville has the right idea as it requires a mixture of people from areas of construction, tourism, finance, engineering, aviation, and business. Two members must also serve as community representatives. However, takeover opponents refuse to even consider this compromise as they prefer to govern by lowest common denominator in everything they do instead of seeking excellence. An earlier post showed the differences between JMAA's board and those of other airports.
Make no mistake. The legislature can do to any other city what it is doing to Jackson if it is not stopped. There is nothing stopping good ole boys from swinging their hammers down at the capitol so they can pick and choose which assets to steal from cities and counties across from Mississippi, all in the name of better management. What other local crown jewels will be at risk? Lakes? Airports? Prime pieces of real estate that just happen to be owned by a local government? The airport belongs to Jackson and should stay with Jackson. If the state wants to take control of the airport, then it should pay to play and that my friends, is the bottom line.
*One veteran reporter asked me what a claims docket was when we were discussing the airport. He didn’t even know when the commissioners met or that he could attend the meetings. He has written stories on the airport for several years.
**$150,000 in 1960 dollars would be worth approximately $1.5 million today.