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Three Q's with Will Livsey, head of air service at MEM
Friday, September 30, 2016

When he's not being upstaged by the Memphis Grizzlies' Tony Allen in promotional videos for MEM, Will Livsey spends most of every waking moment thinking about airplanes. Specifically, airplanes filled with people, going to and from Memphis.

Livsey is the Senior Manager of Air Service Research and Development at the Airport Authority. His job is to recruit new airlines to MEM and convince existing airlines to add new routes. It's a job that is part market analyst, part statistician and part salesman, and nobody knows the Memphis market for air service better than he does.

We get a lot of questions about adding air service at MEM, so we thought we would let Will answer a few of the most common.

A lot of people ask us why we can’t get more nonstop flights to the West coast, particularly Northern California (i.e. SFO) and the Pacific Northwest (i.e. SEA). We know you’re working on it, but what is the basic challenge?
It’s no secret that we have local demand to the West Coast and I would rank service to SFO as our top priority for new service. With that said, the relatively small pool of potential customers here, plus the stage length (distance) of such routes and the overflying of existing westbound hub services present serious challenges.
Flights over 1800 miles are at the max range for large regional jets when airlines factor in headwinds, weather, payload, and reserve fuel. Overflying American (Airlines) hubs at DFW and Phoenix and United hubs in Houston and Denver only exacerbate this challenge because customers typically book by price and frequency of service. Back when we had nonstop service and when our local O&D (Origination and Destination passenger traffic) was at its peak to SFO in 2008, only 30% of the 83 passengers per day each way elected to use the nonstop service. The rest chose to fly with a stop in Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, or Denver because those connecting flights offered more times to fly and lower fares. 

Are the reasons going to be the same for any popularly requested destination (SFO, BOS, RDU), or do the challenges change based on the destination?
For the most part these challenges apply but another is determining how the air service needs of our community align with the network needs of the airlines. Delta and JetBlue are focused on robust local O&D markets for BOS and RDU. With 80 people a day to BOS, could Memphis fill JetBlue’s smallest fleet type, a 100-seat Embraer E190? Conversely, United’s hub in SFO could provide more connecting traffic to Asia secondary markets like Chengdu, Singapore, and Delhi but would that plus the local market demand be enough to fill a 128-seat Airbus 319? That said, we continue to find ways to make such a route a reality at MEM, whether it happens in the short term or long term.

Obviously you’re going to keep trying. What’s your best pitch to the airlines and what, if anything, can we (the public, key Memphis stakeholders) do to help?
Pitching our current and past demand, lower airfares, and lack of one dominant airline in a post-hub era have proven to be the best ways to convince new and existing airlines to add new services. Not to brag or anything but this helped us land 18 new air services in the past 20 months. With that said, each air service win and announcement of another drop in airfares only make it harder to get the next. I’m having to rely more on getting local community and business support in pitching air service. This includes Memphis Chamber and CVB initiatives to get local business leaders to pledge their patronage to new non-stop opportunities like SFO should United ever consider adding service.
We as a community need to realize air service comes with a “use it or lose it” responsibility. It is important to remember that airlines are in the business of making money; if they aren’t filling planes, they will not keep that route on the schedule. Booking connecting itineraries on certain airlines just to get miles or frequent flier perks only hinders our progress in supporting existing and new non-stop flights.

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I got a question. Earlier this year I read an article on CNBC where they interviewed the CEO of Norweigian Air, Bjorn Kjos. He mentioned Memphis along side New Orleans as types of mid sized markets he was looking at. I was floored that he dropped MEM in that conversarion. Their 788s are too big for MEM but their a321neos at 125 seats could pull it off during summer travel. Hope y'all are talking. $650 nonstop fares to London, heck yes!

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