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Wings Air grounds Macon service

Wings Air, one of two commuter airlines flying out of Macon’s Middle Georgia Regional Airport, announced Thursday that it is grounding its flights to Atlanta, citing “insufficient ridership.”

The airline will “temporarily suspend” service out of Macon and Athens to Atlanta, according to a company news release. Company officials blamed “predatory pricing” by its competitor, Georgia Skies, and the refusal of the U.S. Department of Transportation to suspend a subsidy to the competing carrier for its “severely impacted” revenue, according to the release.

The release also said about half of Wings Air’s staff had been laid off or furloughed.

“There are other non-subsidized markets that we will now focus on that are in need of our type of service and provide a level playing field,” President Charlie Mintz said in the release. “It is unfortunate that the DOT failed to see the illogic in subsidizing a carrier that was providing inferior service. It’s just not possible for us to compete against pricing that has no other purpose than to drive us from the market while they exist on federal funds.”

Georgia Skies CEO Greg Kahlstorf said Wings Air was at fault for its own demise.

“Why is it that no one wants to take responsibility for its own failure?” Kahlstorf said by phone from the Athens airport. “They would have been better off paying their employees rather than their lawyers.”

Mintz did not return calls or respond to e-mails Thursday seeking comment.

In May, the federal Department of Transportation selected Georgia Skies to replace Atlantic Southeast Airlines to provide subsidized air service from the Macon airport to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In September, Wings Air announced it would also offer flights, which were not subsidized, between Macon and Atlanta. Wings Air asked the DOT to terminate the subsidy to Georgia Skies, claiming the airline had not lived up to its promise of seamless service to the Atlanta airport because passengers had to take ground transportation and get security clearance after landing there.

Kahlstorf said Georgia Skies is in negotiations with Atlanta airport officials, and that he expects in the “very near future” to offer the security clearance in Macon so passengers can board Atlanta flights without going through security screening again.

In documents filed with the DOT, Wings Air claimed that Georgia Skies was using its subsidy “as a war chest or platform in an effort to drive a competitor (Wings Air) from the market.” The DOT, however, sided in favor of Georgia Skies.

The competition between the airlines sparked a price war in December, with Wings Air offering 99-cent flights that month and into early January and Georgia Skies offering free flights for three days at Christmas.

Georgia Skies issued a statement saying that it would accommodate, free of charge, passengers stranded in Athens and Macon after Wings Air abruptly halted service Thursday afternoon. Middle Georgia Regional’s director, Scott Coffman, said no one was affected at the Macon airport, but Kahlstorf said some passengers were stranded in Athens.

Wings Air employees moved out of the Macon airport about noon, said Coffman.

“We’re sad to see them leave. They really did try hard to advertise and make a market out of this,” he said.

Coffman said that unlike Wings Air, Georgia Skies’ business has been “doing better” of late. He said the company benefited from not only the subsidy but also “worldwide exposure” on in Internet travel sites.

“When you’re in Europe and pull up Travelocity, you’re not going to see Wings Air’s flight from Atlanta to Macon” he said.

Company President Gabriel Kimbrell said in a statement that GeorgiaSkies is “here to stay.”

“The communities of Macon and Athens have been incredibly supportive of us,” Kimbrell said. Accommodating stranded Wings Air passengers “is just one way we can express our appreciation for giving us the opportunity to serve them.”

To contact Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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