I've been following with some interest the story arc of the controversy surrounding Delta Airlines' price-gouging of the Memphis market. People have been griping about Delta's airfares to and from Memphis for months, but the story got legs about six weeks back, when local blogger and former county official Tom Jones started a Facebook group called “Delta Does Memphis.” Within a week, the group had more than 4,000 members, most of them with horror stories of Delta fares that were double and triple the price of Delta fares to the same cities from elsewhere around the country.
I wrote a column about it. The Flyer followed up the next week with John Branston's cover story interview with Jones. The local television media jumped in, as did The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis News, and the Memphis Business Journal.
In response to the controversy, the Airport Authority created its own Facebook page, which never got much traction — or members. Chamber of Commerce president John Moore wrote a piece in the CA that suggested the problem was high fuel prices and “market forces.” Irate letter writers and DDM Facebook members pointed out the obvious: Fuel prices aren't higher in Memphis than they are in Little Rock or Nashville. “Market forces,” as in “Delta has no competition in Memphis and is taking advantage of that fact” made a lot more sense. But still, the public wanted to know, what can be done about it?
As the controversy gained momentum, the Airport Authority, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau announced they would hold a “forum” to discuss the issue. It was held Thursday morning. CA editor Chris Peck (who did not help his journalism cred by playing moderator man for this gig) read questions that had been selected from those submitted by the public to the panelists — John Moore of the Chamber, Larry Cox of the Airport Authority, Kevin Kane of the CVB, an airline trade magazine publisher, and a representative from the American Association of Airport Executives. Most panelists continued to blame fuel prices — which have come down considerably since last fall — as one of the problems. The consensus of the panel seemed to be "not much we can do about it, right now." There was no real acknowledgement by the panel of the driving force behind the public's anger: Delta's obvious gouging of the Memphis market with inordinately high fares.
To say the forum fell flat, would be an understatement, at least if comments on the DDM Facebook page are any indication. No one was allowed to speak except the panelists. It was a tone-deaf, old-school response to a grassroots movement sparked by social media and motivated citizens. It was the kind of response Hosni Mubarak might have come up with. It was a circling of the wagons by three groups that are inextricably entwined through the good ol' boy network.
To wit: The CVB CEO is Kevin Kane. Included on the CVB board are Larry Cox, who heads the Airport Authority and John Moore, who heads the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber board president is Larry Cox. On the COC board are Kevin Kane and Arnold Perl, who also serves as secretary and COC general counsel. Perl is also president of the Airport Authority board, and Moore, who is a former airlines executive, serves on the Airport Authority board. It's quite the daisy chain, and makes it obvious why these organizations are unlikely to be critical of each other.
Let me be clear that I don't think Kane, Moore, Cox, and Perl are bad people, or that they are doing anything unethical. It's business as usual in Memphis, which is all about relationships and who you know. But the system obviously needs a shakeup — fresh blood and fresh ideas on the boards, to say the least.
High airfares are hurting Memphis business and tourism and convention business. Shouldn't the Chamber president and the CVB president be putting pressure on the Airport Authority to try to fix the situation with Delta, rather than lining up with them in a united front? I think so. So do a lot of very influential business leaders in Memphis.
But it's become obvious that unless and until our business leaders and our political leaders — the mayors, local representatives, senators, etc. — take some sort of proactive stance, Delta will continue to “do” Memphis every day.