Silver Airways to fly from Macon airport

jgaines@macon.comFebruary 27, 2013 

Federal officials have chosen a new airline to provide passenger flights from Middle Georgia Regional Airport, and the winning company, Silver Airways, promises cheap flights not just to Atlanta but also to Orlando, Fla.

“We’re excited to spread our wings to Macon, Georgia, and serve the people of this proud community,” said Mickey Bowman, Silver’s vice president for Essential Air Service, in an e-mailed statement. “We’re on-pace to launch service to Macon on April 1, 2013, pending standard regulatory clearances from the FAA.”

Silver Airways won the 2013 Regional Airline of the Year Award from Air Transport Magazine, the first U.S.-based airline to win that award since 2008, according to a company news release.

In its January bid for the federal Essential Air Service subsidy, Silver asked for $1,998,696 per year to offer one round-trip flight each weekday to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and one round trip on weekends; and the same flight schedule to Orlando International Airport. Flights would be on a 34-passenger Saab 340B+ turboprop.

The airline projected $44.90 one-way fares to Atlanta and $116.67 to Orlando.

The announcement was welcome news to Macon Mayor Robert Reichert.

“We are very pleased and excited with the decision of the U.S. Department of Transportation to award this EAS contract to Silver Airways,” he said Wednesday.

The medium-size Saab should be comfortable for local passengers, and the added option of flights to Orlando -- like Atlanta, a hub city for many large airlines -- will be “very beneficial” in providing access to more destinations for low prices with less hassle, Reichert said.

A news conference to introduce the company is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at the airport. One of the Saab turboprops will be on display then.

Pulling out of a nosedive

The subsidy agreement is expected to last for two years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation order released Wednesday. But if it’s to continue after 2013, Silver Airways must find some way to get at least 10 passengers per day flying through Macon, the order says. In the last fiscal year, the current subsidy holder, GeorgiaSkies, averaged just three passengers per day on its Atlanta round trips -- and monthly reports indicate those numbers have slid further still.

The city’s news release acknowledges the drop-off from a decade ago, when about 20,000 passengers per year flew in and out of Macon.

“In the past, passenger air service between Macon and Atlanta has steadily declined to the point where it has become almost nonexistent,” said the announcement from Chris Floore, Macon’s public affairs director. The city hopes current numbers can be pumped up, though the bulk of the airport’s $200 million annual economic impact is from aircraft maintenance and cargo traffic.

But the fact that 20,000 passengers once used the subsidized service shows Macon’s potential, according to Bowman. Silver Airways hopes to draw on traffic between Robins Air Force Base to Patrick Air Force Base in Orlando, plus carry Middle Georgians to tourist attractions such as Disney World, Sea World and Universal Orlando.

Uncertain service, troubled bids

GeorgiaSkies, a subsidiary of Pacific Wings, has held the EAS subsidy since 2008, offering daily flights to and from Atlanta. In December 2011 the company announced it would try that service without the federal subsidy, substantially increasing the ticket price. Public use plunged still further, and in April 2012 GeorgiaSkies sought to stop flying from Macon.

But federal officials -- while restoring the subsidy -- ordered GeorgiaSkies to continue until a new carrier was found. In September, Sun Air Express was announced as the winning bidder, but that company withdrew in December, before starting its flights. GeorgiaSkies was ordered to keep serving Macon at least through March 23, though for at least a week or so the company’s one Macon-based plane was broken down and no flights were provided.

The subsidy was rebid in January, and DOT officials got four bids. But only two of those were seriously considered, according to Wednesday’s order awarding the subsidy to Silver Airways.

An outfit called American Aviation Group proposed flights to Atlanta for a $1.2 million subsidy, claiming to be connected with Sky King Airlines, a known carrier. But on Feb. 7, Sky King told federal officials it was not bidding on the subsidy contract and had no connection with American Aviation Group.

Sovereign Air proposed flights to Atlanta for $1.5 million, but didn’t have the necessary federal operating authority and so also wasn’t considered, according to the order.

SeaPort Airlines proposed trips to Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn., via Athens, for $2.5 million a year. That bid and the one from Silver Airways got serious looks.

Silver’s bid was endorsed by Reichert in a Feb. 11 letter to Scott Faulk, head of the Essential Air Service division.

The federal order says the decision hinged on reliability, mutual agreements with other carriers, community preference and cost. This choice was “very straightforward,” since Silver asked for less money than SeaPort, has community support, is reliable and has reciprocal ticketing and baggage-check agreements with many major airlines, the order says.

Reichert said Silver Airways flights will land within secure areas at both Atlanta and Orlando.

“You’ll go through security once here in Macon, and you’re good to go,” he said.

Company background

Silver Airways shares a Fort Lauderdale street address -- 3201 Griffin Road -- with Sun Air Express, the carrier that won Macon’s EAS bid last fall but backed out before starting service. The office numbers are different, however, and Silver Airways spokesman Steve Bennett said that address at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport houses offices for a number of air carriers.

“Silver Airways is a completely independent airline,” he said.

Launched in December 2011, Silver Airways has nearly 800 employees, according to a statement from Matthew Ray, chairman of the board. It’s owned by Victory Park Capital, a Chicago-based investment firm, and a company news release touts Silver Airways managers as being “seasoned and accomplished industry executives, each carrying more than 15 years of notable professional experience with some of the biggest brands in aviation.”

It flies 20 Saabs, with more planned this year, plus 13 Beechcraft 1900Ds. Those planes operate from 47 locations in Alabama, the Bahamas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, providing more than 200 daily flights, according to the company. Silver Airways recently added service at Washington, D.C., and began flying from Atlanta on Aug. 1, 2012.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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