New passenger carrier coming to Macon airport

Within a few weeks, a new passenger carrier should be flying out of Middle Georgia Regional Airport to Atlanta. But the exact date of the transition from GeorgiaSkies to Sun Air International has not yet been announced.

“We’re allowing the carriers to coordinate on when they make the transition,” said Bill Mosley, public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Late last week, an order from Susan Kurland, the department’s assistant secretary for Aviation and International Affairs, named Sun Air Express -- doing business here as Sun Air International -- as winner of the bidding to provide federally subsidized passenger service between Macon and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Under a two-year contract, Sun Air would get nearly $1.95 million per year through the federal Essential Air Service program. That program funds passenger service from smaller cities to major hubs.

“We expect Pacific Wings (GeorgiaSkies’ parent company) and Sun Air to work together to make a smooth transition at Macon,” Kurland wrote. “In that regard, before Pacific Wings suspends its service it must notify any passengers holding reservations for travel after the suspension date, assist those passengers in making alternate air transportation arrangements or provide a refund of the ticket price, without penalty, if requested.”

Based on Pacific Wings’ unsubsidized business, the government estimates Sun Air’s per-passenger subsidy will start at $979, Kurland wrote.

In the firm’s June 20 bid, Sun Air President Thomas Cooper said the airline hopes to drop the current $267 round-trip price substantially.

“Sun Air will market its flights with a simple, low unrestricted price structure, ranging from $39 to $59 each way,” the bid says. “The company is projecting net average fares approximately $44 each way, net of taxes.”

Cooper proposed a $727-per-passenger subsidy for two years, but he said he hopes to get that below $200 “over a reasonable period of time.”

Sun Air promises the same number of round trips as GeorgiaSkies currently offers, but leaving as early as 6:45 a.m. and returning as late as 7:20 p.m. That’s two hours earlier and later than GeorgiaSkies’ schedule, Cooper’s bid says.

GeorgiaSkies’ 90-day notice would have run out Aug. 25, but the Department of Transportation ordered its service to continue through Sept. 24 unless Sun Air starts flights before then, said Erick D’Leon, airport operation supervisor.

It’s even possible that the Department of Transportation could issue another extension order to Georgia-Skies, he said.

“There’s no telling what they’re going to do,” D’Leon said.

Declining use

When Delta Air Lines affiliate Atlantic Southeast Airlines served Middle Georgia Regional Airport, about 20,000 passengers used it per year. After GeorgiaSkies took over in 2008 that dropped to about 3,000 per year, splitting its $1.4 million annual subsidy among fewer people. The subsidy rose to $464 per person, while the federal government didn’t want to pay more than $200 a head. In late 2010 the Department of Transportation bid out the contract again, but rejected all four it received -- including a renewal from GeorgiaSkies -- as too costly. Then on Dec. 14, 2010, Pacific Wings CEO Greg Kahlstorf announced he would provide service without the subsidy. Bidding was canceled.

During the most recent period on record, October 2010 to September 2011, Georgia-Skies carried 1,988 passengers, or about three per day, according to a July 11 letter from Scott Faulk of the Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service Division. According to federal data, about 40 percent of flights in 2011 were canceled because there were no passengers or cargo. So on April 26 of this year, Kahlstorf filed a 90-day notice of intent to stop flying from Macon. That triggered a new round of bidding.

Two in contention

Only two bids were received, both from companies based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Sun Air proposed four daily round-trips on weekdays and two each on Saturday and Sunday, using a nine-passenger twin-engine Piper Chieftain; and American Aviation Group -- operating as Twin Air Calypso -- offered six round-trips every day, using an eight-passenger single-engine Cessna Caravan. Twin Air Calypso asked for a $1.55 million annual subsidy.

Several factors inclined federal authorities to choose the more expensive bid.

“According to its application, Sun Air has made significant investments to acquire access to industry interline and baggage agreements with major air carriers,” Kurland wrote. “Additionally, it has made arrangements to use gate space within the sterile concourse at Atlanta, thereby eliminating the need for passengers to re-clear security upon arrival and allowing for seamless baggage transfers.”

According to Kurland, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert sent a letter July 31 in support of Sun Air, citing the terminal access and baggage agreements.

Kurland wrote that another factor for the department was that on Feb. 24, Twin Air Calypso was fined $70,000 for offering “unauthorized scheduled passenger service as a commuter air carrier.”

The department of transportation will watch how Sun Air’s service develops, Mosley said. If the subsidy rises above $1,000 per passenger, Macon could become ineligible for federal subsidies for the airport. And if passengers remain below 10 per day for long, the subsidy could be canceled at the end of September 2013, he said. Officials hope the number of passengers rises as fares fall, Mosley said. Kurland wrote that the Department of Transportation “strongly urges” Macon and Sun Air to work together on increasing the service’s use over the next two years.

Mayoral spokesman Chris Floore said the city views subsidized service as a way to get Sun Air into this market.

“It’s exciting to continue to have air service in Macon,” he said. “One thing that we look forward to in the future is outside of the (subsidy) program that the carrier would explore is additional cities.”

In conjunction with Reichert’s promotion of Macon as a cargo hub, perhaps Sun Air could be persuaded to offer future flights to Charlotte, N.C., Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., Floore said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489.