New airline not coming to Macon

jgaines@macon.comJanuary 3, 2013 

Sun Air International will never rise over Macon, according to an e-mail the company’s president sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In September, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based airline won a two-year subsidized contract to provide passenger flights between Middle Georgia Regional Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and was expected to start Dec. 1.

In late November, however, Sun Air admitted it wasn’t ready, meaning current carrier GeorgiaSkies -- a subsidiary of Pacific Wings -- would be required to continue the flights it has provided since 2008. GeorgiaSkies flies round trips between Macon and Atlanta four times each weekday and twice a day on weekends -- though sometimes those were canceled due to lack of passengers -- and Sun Air promised the same number of flights.

But on Dec. 20, Sun Air President David Hackett sent a message to Dennis DeVany, chief of the federal Essential Air Service program, withdrawing Sun Air’s bid altogether.

Sun Air recently started similar flights with federal EAS subsidies in Victoria, Texas; Hagerstown, Md.; and Lancaster, Penn., Hackett’s e-mail says.

“Since beginning our EAS operations, we have clearly encountered greater challenges than anticipated in completing our pilot recruiting and training,” he wrote. “Getting maintenance bases established that meet our requirements in Texas and Md./Penn. has also been more difficult than we expected. The result of these circumstances is that our operations have not been up to the standards we and the communities expect.”

So they’ve decided to concentrate their resources elsewhere and withdraw from Macon.

“We will communicate this decision to Pacific Wings immediately, and hope that a replacement carrier can be found quickly,” Hackett wrote.

A U.S. Department of Transportation spokesperson said Thursday that bidding should reopen soon for subsidized passenger service at Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

Just before Christmas, Macon Airport director Doug Faour got a cryptic voicemail telling him of Sun Air’s decision to withdraw, according to city External Affairs Director Chris Floore. But when Faour returned the call there was no answer, so the city waited on an official notice.

“You can’t go from a random voicemail,” Floore said Thursday.

Official word came Wednesday, in the form of an e-mailed link to Hackett’s message, Floore said.

Faour has “reiterated to (federal officials) our desire to have a service provider in Macon that is willing to and excited about expanding passenger service beyond the EAS program by providing unsubsidized service to other cities,” Floore said in the e-mail.

Floore said city officials think that only service to cities beyond Atlanta will make passenger flights “a viable component of operations at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport.” In any case, it is maintenance and repair operations at the airport that have by far the biggest economic impact, he said.

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 the federal 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 2012 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 beat out one other bidder and was to receive $1.95 million per year.

On Nov. 15, the U.S. Department of Transportation decided to again pay GeorgiaSkies its previous $1.4 million annual subsidy until a new airline is chosen.

Efforts to reach representatives of Sun Air and GeorgiaSkies for comment were not successful.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.

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