The head of GeorgiaSkies airline made a move Tuesday that should end the bidding to provide federally subsidized passenger flights from Middle Georgia Regional Airport -- but it won’t end GeorgiaSkies’ service there.
It may, however, lead to major changes in service based on what airline passengers want, rather than what city officials say, said Greg Kahlstorf, CEO of GeorgiaSkies’ parent company, Pacific Wings.
“The leadership there (at the city) can’t give us a clear agenda for air service and stick with it,” he said.
Kahlstorf sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday, formally withdrawing GeorgiaSkies’ bid to provide subsidized Essential Air Service to Atlanta.
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In the letter, he said city leaders are being unrealistic in hoping that a small airline can provide the same traffic and income as a major carrier that won’t extend service here anyway.
“In Macon, the expectation exists that EAS will also serve as a vehicle for rationalizing various ambitions related to Middle Georgia Regional Airport, which have nothing to do with stated EAS objectives,” Kahlstorf wrote. “Clearly, GeorgiaSkies misjudged the objectives and priorities of Macon leadership in submitting its most recent bid for subsidized service.”
GeorgiaSkies is committed to flying out of Macon “for the long haul,” but to define that schedule Kahlstorf has 20 market researchers calling passengers during the next two weeks, asking what service they want and would be willing to pay for. That may include continued Atlanta service. With Southwest Airlines coming to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the dynamic may shift, he said.
When Delta Air Lines affiliate Atlantic Southeast Airlines served Middle Georgia Regional Airport, about 20,000 passengers used it per year. ASA service ended two years ago, and since then GeorgiaSkies has flown 26 times per week to Atlanta under the federal subsidy program.
But the number of passengers dropped to about 3,000 per year. Split among fewer people, the $1.4 million annual subsidy reached $464 per person. The federal government doesn’t want to pay more than $200 per person.
GeorgiaSkies’ contract expired Sept. 30, and the federal Department of Transportation sought a lower-cost service. But all four bids received were rejected Oct. 7, and the government extended the bidding deadline to Nov. 12. Meanwhile, GeorgiaSkies has kept flying from Macon to Atlanta and back under the terms of the old contract.
Of about four dozen possible bidders, three airlines submitted bids last month to provide subsidized passenger service to Macon: GeorgiaSkies, Florida-based Gulfstream International and Ohio-based Charter Air Transport. The other bidders proposed flights to Orlando and Tampa, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Washington, D.C., while GeorgiaSkies submitted differing schedules to Atlanta.
Some Macon City Council members sounded enthusiastic about the prospect of flights to Florida and said continuing flights to Atlanta only was a non-starter. Between those statements and comments from local residents, Kahlstorf said, he decided to give up on seeking to please officials’ whims.
The federal subsidy is meant to provide a “safety net” against loss of all flight service, not fuel local economic development efforts, he said.
GeorgiaSkies invested a lot of time and money in Macon-to-Atlanta service, which city officials said they had to have at the time, only to hear now that they want something different, Kahlstorf said. He was openly scornful of some officials’ dreams of full flights from Macon to Walt Disney World.
Airport Manager Scott Coffman said he heard Tuesday morning that GeorgiaSkies was withdrawing its bid, and he talked to the Department of Transportation later in the day. He confirmed that Kahlstorf’s move should put an end to the federal subsidy and bidding, since GeorgiaSkies is willing to provide service on its own terms.
“For the most part, if you’re receiving unsubsidized service, you don’t get both,” Coffman said. “That’s the whole point.”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.