By Bob Pepalis
Call it a modern air traveler’s fantasy: A short drive to the airport followed by free parking, no bag fees and no long security lines.
Southern Airways Express promises to deliver on that fantasy. And it sees that promise as the reason frequent fliers should skip bookings on big-name airlines and head to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport when they’re taking short flights to Florida beaches or to Memphis.
Alyson and Scott Reynolds took their first flight on Southern Airways Express to Atlanta from their home in Destin, Fla., on July 8 for her interior design business.
She was happy to skip the Transportation Security Administration’s security lines. He said he liked the flight’s convenience, as the couple lives about 15 minutes from the Destin airport and only needed to arrive 15 minutes before the flight.
“And the flight left early,” Alyson Reynolds said. “That never happens.”
Ben Giles, owner of White Sands Contracting of Destin, likes the little, Memphis-based airline’s business so much he invested in the company.
“I have business quite a bit up here [in metro Atlanta],” he said recently during a stop at PDK. “So, without having to go through TSA and all the hassles of [Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport] and all that, it’s really convenient. And, secondly, as an investor, I hope the airline takes off. I think it’s a great business model and they should do well.”
For its flights in and out of metro Atlanta, Southern Airways Express has found a way to do something other airlines haven’t: avoid Hartsfield.
Long-standing debates about whether Atlanta needs a second airport still go on, but Southern Airways Express is able to operate from PDK under a Federal Aviation Administration definition of public charters. Essentially, airport officials have said, the company markets, schedules and books passengers, and then contracts with a subsidiary that provides the flights.
Southern Airways Express took its first flights in 2013. The company spent the first year experimenting to find which flights met consumer demand and has scaled back on flights. When the company announced its opening last year, it offered flights from PDK to six southern cities.
This summer, the airline operates 54 flights a week, including two takeoffs and two landings most days from PDK. Chief Operating Officer Keith Sisson said a new schedule should be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the next few weeks. That schedule will begin just after Labor Day.
“We decided early on our competition was going to be the long car ride,” he said.
Flights on Southern Airways Express start at $198 one way, but passengers who follow the charter airline on Facebook (Facebook.com/southernairwaysexpress) can occasionally find deals cutting prices to as little as $129. Sisson said the first seats are always cheaper on each flight. Last-minute flights are $248 one way.
Atlanta passengers can fly directly only to Memphis or Destin under the current schedule, but Sisson expects the company will add more destinations once the airline is better established in the Atlanta market.
Company officials plan to look at adding flights from Atlanta to St. Augustine, Fla., Hilton Head, S.C., or St. Simons Island in Georgia. Southern Airways Express will continue to schedule SEC game-day flights, linking fans with their teams during football season, he said.
Company officials say that the PDK-based flights have not been as successful as the Memphis-based ones. Almost every flight is sold out from Memphis to the beaches, Sisson said.
One flight per day out of PDK is bound for Memphis four days per week – excluding Thursdays and weekends. A flight arrives daily from Memphis Monday through Friday. And Southern Airways flies to Destin once a day five times per week – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. An inbound flight from Destin is scheduled four days per week – Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. That makes nine outbound and nine inbound flights weekly.
But they also want to convince more business travelers to fly their airline to fill the seats now being used by vacationers. When the leisure travel stopped last winter, so did flights out of Atlanta by Southern Airways Express.
“This year, we know that we have to do something different when the winter rolls along,” he said.
A small start has been made at PDK. Every week, six to eight people fly to Atlanta from Memphis for meetings they used to drive to. And Sisson said the airline would like to start a banker’s shuttle to Charlotte. “We can take them out of their cars with a convenient flight from their neighborhood to Charlotte,” Sisson said.
For now, John Bunyan and his wife might be close to the airline’s target market. He’s a retiree, having spent 36 years working for IBM. The Bunyans have homes in both Destin and Atlanta.
“My wife has flown this and I’ve flown this. We think this is outstanding,” he said. “We keep a car down here and it really works out really handy. You’re here in an hour and a half without the drive.”