New passenger service from Macon delayed

Feds order current airline to continue

jgaines@macon.comNovember 28, 2012 

A new passenger carrier will not start flying out of Middle Georgia Regional Airport this Saturday, despite earlier plans to do so.

Instead, the existing carrier, GeorgiaSkies, will continue under an order from the U.S. Department of Transportation until Sun Air International is ready to take over service from Macon to Atlanta.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Sun Air announced plans in September to start flying Dec. 1 from Macon to Atlanta: four flights on weekdays and two per day on weekends, for $44 one way. But on Monday the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered GeorgiaSkies to keep flying at least through Dec. 22, and perhaps for a month beyond that, apparently because Sun Air isn’t ready.

“I know that the Department of Transportation, the way I understand it, extended GeorgiaSkies in order to provide Sun Air additional time to set up in Macon,” said Doug Faour, airport director.

Sun Air has only recently won federal permission to begin service on several routes around the country, he said, so he suspects the company may just need more start-up time than expected.

“It’s my understanding from the Department of Transportation that they have completed everything they need to do for compliance,” Faour said. “They’ve met all their regulatory requirements.”

Officials from Sun Air and GeorgiaSkies did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The Nov. 26 order from Todd Homan, director of the Office of Aviation Analysis, says Pacific Wings -- GeorgiaSkies’ parent company -- has to continue its Macon service through Jan. 22, “or until Sun Air Express ... actually begins service.”

“However, replacement service may not commence before Dec. 23, 2012, the end of the current hold-in period,” Homan wrote. “In accordance with (federal law), we must extend the service obligation of Pacific Wings for an additional 30 days, or until replacement service actually begins, whichever occurs first.”

Technically, Sun Air could begin flying from Macon anytime after GeorgiaSkies’ month-to-month mandate runs out Dec. 22, Faour said; but he doubts the newcomer would begin service right at Christmastime.

Faour said he spoke with Sun Air representatives within the past two weeks, but so far hasn’t heard any nuts-and-bolts details.

“They’ve made no preparations for advertising or signage, or other arrangements with the airport; but I’m sure that will be coming soon,” he said.

When the transition does occur, according to Susan Kurland of the U.S. Department of Transportation, GeorgiaSkies must warn anyone who has already bought tickets of the change, help them make alternate arrangements, or refund their money.

GeorgiaSkies began flying Macon-to-Atlanta routes in 2008, but ridership dropped steeply from the days when an affiliate of Delta Air Lines held the contract.

That split a federal Essential Air Service subsidy -- then about $1.4 million a year -- among fewer people. The subsidy, which funds passenger service from smaller cities to major hubs, rose to about $464 per passenger. GeorgiaSkies tried providing service without a subsidy, but in April the company filed a 90-day notice of intent to stop flying from Macon. Before that planned July stop, the Department of Transportation ordered the airline to continue while the subsidized contract was rebid.

Sun Air and Twin Air Calypso were the only bidders for the renewed subsidy. On Sept. 6, Sun Air was announced as the winner of a two-year contract to fly to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with a subsidy of nearly $1.95 million per year.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.

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