Memphis' own Southern Airways: the refreshing future of air travel

With a focus on service and simplicity, Southern Airways Express--a Memphis-based air transportation company--challenges traditional air travel and opens routes to beach, business and football.
"Has anyone called shotgun?" is not a normal thing to ask a commercial pilot. It's the sort of behavior that gets people put on "lists." Southern Airways Express, however, is not a normal airline. So abnormal, sensible and human is the team behind the Memphis start-up that they just might have saved regional air travel from the jaws of the terrible and made it fun again.

Routes opened in June 2013 to a successful summer, but by November the company was scrambling for financing. At one year in--almost exactly--things had changed again. Investment bankers in New York came courting: the young company was proving itself, but the attraction was deeper. Southern Airways was different, the venture capitalists said; it was filling a void.

Airline founder Stan Little, an aviation history buff and criminal lawyer in north Mississippi, has a long history of finding voids in the market. At 17, the Humboldt, Tennessee, native talked his father into co-signing a loan to buy a local radio station and created the first all-talk-and-news format serving rural western Tennessee.

In the fall of 2012, Little and some friends took his Cessna Golden Eagle for some scuba diving in the Bahamas. It was there, over drinks with friends--all wanting to borrow the Cessna--that Little’s pilot, Scott Honnell, joked, "Why don't you just hire me full time and sell tickets?" It was funny, but not absurd. Little grabbed a cocktail napkin and sketched out the route map.

The idea stuck. The South is connected by a lot of long drives that make short flights. Surely there were enough people in Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans and Atlanta to fill nine seats on a couple of routes a day? With TSA regulations, driving from Memphis to Atlanta, door to door, is slightly faster than flying with a major carrier. Once in the hands of the big three airlines, customer service can be brutal. So bad that in 2011 Congress passed the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights demanding, however toothlessly, that airlines treat their customers like free citizens.

A good idea, but impossible but for a re-occurring qualifier in the 1,000-plus pages of the Department of Transportation regulations: if you were hauling fewer than 10 passengers, in a plane that weighed less than 8,500 pounds and not using a TSA terminal, everything changed. "The size of the planes and the short haul routes got the airline out from most carrier regulations except safety," said Little. "Every hundred hours we basically take the aircraft apart, service it and put back together. Every hundred hours."

Memphis was an ideal location that was big enough to generate the volume needed, and small enough that grassroots marketing could have the right impact. By the first week of June 2013, the planes were on standby, as were the pilots. At the call center the phones were ringing off the hook, but two days before the first scheduled flight, the Department of Transportation had not cleared the airline for operation. All those people calling in were going on a rapidly swelling wait list as time ticked away. On Tuesday, June 4, 4:55 p.m. eastern time, the phone rang with the authorization number. At 4:56, Stan was on the phone with the call center with the order to start filling seats, and the website went live. "Everyone worked through the night. The first flight took off 36 hours later. Sold out."

The timing, after such a close call, Little says, was almost "divine." Almost immediately following the launch, Delta Air Lines began slashing routes from Memphis. "On Monday, Delta would announce that they were dropping a flight, and on Tuesday, Southern would announce we were picking one up. Back and forth like that for a month." Southern Airways' Facebook page went from zero to 10,000 fans in a matter of weeks.

In the first three months, Southern Airways moved some 3,000 passengers with an 88 percent fill rate on the planes. By October, the summer boom was over, and the airline knew it needed to establish business routes between major Southern cities if it was going to stay in business. Its first attempt at a Memphis-Atlanta route proved unprofitable despite major carriers moving some 40,000 passengers between the two cities every month.

In June 2014, Southern Airways reopened the route using summer traffic and word of mouth to advertise the business flights. After the first few weeks, the route has been a consistent sellout for business travelers.

Keith Sisson, Southern COO, oversees the day-to-day operations from the airline headquarters in downtown Memphis. For him, marketing has always been the issue. "We're having to re-brand the airports we use. Most people have never heard of them."

While Southern's employees live in Memphis, earlier this year the airline moved from Memphis' Dewitt-Spain to the Olive Branch Airport. The small facilities, however, are part of the company's charm. "Fly into a major airport and you are still an hour away from where you want to be. We can put you down in Buckhead, Destin or Gulf Shores, Alabama--airports the big carriers can't use."

Southern is adding Memphis routes to Knoxville and Chattanooga later this year, as well as Birmingham to New Orleans and Atlanta to Gulf Shores. While the summer may be beach season, the fall is not all about business travel. "When it comes to game day Saturdays, we all have a religious and yet somehow unhealthy obsession with college football," said Sisson.

This season, Southern is offering game day flights to all Ole Miss games, 10 Auburn games, five Alabama, four Arkansas and four Florida. "Look, we aren't geniuses here," said Sisson. "We just did it the way that we'd like to see it done. It doesn't even cost any more to do it right; it is just a little more trouble. You actually have to care."

Read more articles by Richard Murff.

Richard has reported from across Latin America, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Clarksdale, MS, to name a few places. He has been editor at the Nautilus Publishing and his work has appeared in The Bitter SouthernerThe American SpectatorDelta Magazine, Sail, The Daily News, Oxford Town, and others.
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