When John Cousins needed to fly to California, the first stage of his trip wasn’t to an airport.
His home in Juliette is well within the 19 counties that a recent study says Middle Georgia Regional Airport should serve, but Cousins saw no point in driving 30 miles to catch a Silver Airways flight to Atlanta. As he’s done three times before, he instead drove 15 miles to Groome Transportation’s lot in Macon and rode a Groome van from there to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Cousins said he didn’t even know there were commercial passenger flights from Macon. But he indicated he wasn’t likely to start flying out of Middle Georgia Regional anytime soon.
“I’m pretty happy here,” he said, awaiting pickup in Groome’s lobby before heading to Atlanta.
The shuttle service is about as quick as the 80-mile flight between Macon and Atlanta, offers convenient dropoff and free parking, Cousins said.
It’s also a third of the cost of flying, despite the $2 million annual subsidy Silver gets to provide Macon flights to and from Atlanta.
With other options available and the service drawing few takers, one question looms: Are heavily subsidized passenger flights worth fighting to keep?
Macon-Bibb County officials say they are.
“We’ve got to keep looking at passenger service,” government spokesman Chris Floore said.
Lack of use in the past few years has been the fault of the airlines under contract, not the general practicality of local service, said Airport Manager Doug Faour. He and Mayor Robert Reichert’s administration are lobbying to remain in the federal Essential Air Service subsidy program and hope next time to attract a better carrier, he said.
“We’re not quitting on this. It’s worked in the past. Commercial air service (has been) here for 60 years,” Faour said.
The subsidy was born in the wake of the 1978 deregulation of airlines, intended to make sure smaller cities had passenger service at reasonable prices, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the program.
It was only intended to last 10 years but was made permanent in 1996, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Congress repeatedly resisted attempts at cuts, and lawmakers even expanded the program. It has bipartisan support from members of Congress who represent towns with subsidized service, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that eliminating the program nationwide would save more than $100 million per year.
When the program started, the only criterion for a subsidy was whether an airport had passenger service at that time, according to the U.S. DOT website. A list from that time shows 480 airports in the 48 contiguous states eligible for the subsidy. Ten of them were in Georgia, including Macon.
Across the state, now only Macon and Athens are still in the program, and according to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of carriers operating at EAS airports nationwide has declined from 34 to 10. Just 114 airports in the lower 48 states still receive the subsidy, getting a total of $224 million a year, according to the federal Office of Aviation Analysis.
Subsidy-per-passenger limits were added in 1990, and in 2011 a new law prohibited subsidies greater than $1,000 per passenger. The goal is an average of less than $200 per passenger.
Then in 2012, another law said subsidized airports must get at least 10 passengers per day to keep the subsidy. In April 2014, the Department of Transportation announced that it would start strictly enforcing those rules.
For years, Delta Air Lines subsidiary Atlantic Southern Airways served Macon, drawing about 20,000 passengers per year. Passengers could check bags and go through security in Macon, then walk directly between gates in Atlanta under Delta’s arrangement.
“In fact, there were years when nearly 100,000 passengers either (boarded or got off) an aircraft at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport,” according to Macon-Bibb’s recent appeal to the U.S. DOT.
But the Delta affiliate left in 2008, replaced by GeorgiaSkies, which didn’t have the same baggage-handling and security agreements for at least a year. Passenger numbers plummeted to about 3,000 a year, driving the per-passenger subsidy up to $464. Wings Air, a commuter airline without the subsidy, quit flying from Macon to Atlanta in 2009, citing a lack of passengers.
GeorgiaSkies tried flying without the subsidy for 17 months before asking to be let out of the contract, thus throwing the service open for bidding.
“During the unsubsidized period, flights were cancelled on a regular basis and passenger enplanements continued a downward spiral,” the city’s appeal says. Another bidder, Sun Air International, backed out in 2012 despite the promise of a $1.95 million subsidy.
Finally Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Silver Airways was chosen to get a $2 million subsidy for flights to Atlanta and Orlando, and Silver started service in April 2013.
Business picked up sharply as Silver took over, from a low of 20 passengers in February 2013 to a high of 202 in September 2013. But in 2014, riders varied between 86 in February and 137 in June, Faour said. Both GeorgiaSkies and Silver Airways promised major advertising campaigns that never materialized.
Silver announced plans this summer to leave not only Macon, but also pull out of other cities in Alabama and Mississippi from which it flew to Atlanta. Passengers from those airports altogether were 47 percent below what Silver expected, the company’s formal notice says.
In the wake of Silver’s notice and continued low usage, the Department of Transportation is considering eliminating Macon from the EAS program altogether. Macon-Bibb officials have appealed, asking for more time to get the numbers up, to start a new round of bidding for another carrier and to restart the passenger count with the next airline instead of including previous dismal numbers.
People from the 19-county study area around Middle Georgia Regional Airport take nearly 1.2 million flights a year, with almost all of them passing through Atlanta, according to a June 2014 market study by Sixel Consulting Group Inc. of Eugene, Oregon.
“That’s a relatively healthy number, and typically places that have numbers that good have a relatively solid air service,” Faour said.
But even discounting other options such as Groome, for people living north of Forsyth -- well inside the study area -- the Atlanta airport is a closer drive than Middle Georgia Regional. Many people would choose the Atlanta drive even if Macon had more than one airline, the study says.
“Still, the results of this study show the potential for hundreds more daily passengers to fly in and out of the Middle Georgia Regional Airport,” it concludes.
One of the other airports Silver is leaving is Northwest Alabama Regional Airport in Muscle Shoals. The airline received a $2.6 million annual subsidy to provide flights from there to Atlanta, $600,000 more than it got in Macon.
Travelers were willing to give Silver a chance, but they were hit with frequent cancellations and flight delays, making people miss connections, said Airport Director Barry Griffith. That instead sent many travelers to Huntsville, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee.
The passenger dropoff put Muscle Shoals below the threshold for an EAS subsidy, but like Macon, Muscle Shoals is seeking a waiver of that requirement for now, hoping to get its numbers back up with a new carrier, Griffith said.
“Without that subsidy I don’t think that we’d be able to sustain a viable air service for a very long period,” he said. “However, our ultimate goal is to partner with an airline that can actually work toward making a profit without that subsidy.”
If the airport handles more than 10,000 passengers a year, the federal money it gets for improvements will rise from $150,000 to $1 million annually, Griffith said.
Muscle Shoals actually is planning on doing without passenger service for the month of October, risky as that would be, in hopes of getting a “restart” with the U.S. DOT similar to what Macon has requested, he said.
Griffith hopes a new carrier will fly small planes four times a day, instead of the once-a-day flights on a mid-sized plane that Silver offered. Business travelers, the bulk of Muscle Shoals’ passengers, need access to frequent connections, he said.
Some similar-sized cities do manage to keep good passenger traffic without federal help. Delta Connection offers flights from the Columbus Metropolitan Airport to Atlanta without a subsidy, running four flights most of the week and three on Saturday, said Columbus Airport Director Richard Howell.
“I think we finished off last year with about 55,000 enplanements,” he said.
That’s down from 2012, since American Eagle pulled out in June 2013, Howell said. The airport has space for 14 airlines but now has just one, he said. Even so, Columbus remains ranked as a “primary airport,” with more than 10,000 passengers per year, and county commissioners there are looking to add another airline.
Groome Transportation runs vans from Columbus to Atlanta too, but the airport competes successfully, even without help from a subsidy, Howell said. Columbus’ airport attracts mostly business fliers, who are less concerned with price than leisure travelers, and who appreciate the convenience of only one check-in and a smooth transfer at Hartsfield-Jackson, he said.
The Columbus airport also gets some traffic from nearby Fort Benning, since Delta tickets can easily be bought at the base, Howell said.
“They use our service quite a bit,” he said.
One handicap for Macon’s airport is the lack of a similar ticket-selling arrangement at Robins Air Force Base, according to Macon’s appeal.
But Macon’s combination of sparse scheduling and proximity to Atlanta makes using Groome or simply driving to the Atlanta airport a stronger option here.
Doug Massengill, visiting family in Macon, said last week he checked Silver’s online price out of curiosity before this trip from his Chicago-area home.
Groome, which he’s used before, was a much better deal, he said. It was much cheaper than a flight but still comfortable and convenient. That outweighed anything the airline could offer, Massengill said as he waited last week on a return Groome trip to Atlanta.
The airport and Groome both offer free parking, but Groome’s lot often is full while the airport’s is mostly empty. A round-trip van ride costs $72 for adults, a third of Silver’s lowest advertised round-trip price.
Harold Groome, president of the van shuttle company, said his business continued to grow in both Warner Robins and Atlanta, even during Silver’s best months. He attributes that to the airline’s schedule of just one Atlanta flight six days a week compared to round-the-clock van service. The city’s U.S. DOT appeal says Silver’s one flight a day to Atlanta arrives too late to meet 40 percent of connecting flights from Hartsfield-Jackson.
“We don’t really see anybody using (the airport) as a viable alternative,” Groome said. “Why would you go one time a day when you can go 27?”
COSTS AND BENEFITS
It doesn’t cost Middle Georgia Regional Airport anything to have a passenger carrier, Faour said.
In fact, though the federal subsidy goes to the airline instead of the airport, having passenger service pays, he said. Lease agreements, funding from the Transportation Security Administration and concession stand sales bring the airport $90,000 to $100,000 per year, Faour said.
An airline’s departure would cost four or five airport jobs, Faour said, though the concession stand and two car-rental agencies likely would remain.
“There’s enough local (flight) business to keep them going,” he said.
The larger reason to lobby for continued passenger service, though, is impact on other businesses, Faour said.
“Commercial air service is attractive to businesses looking to relocate,” he said.
Faour said he’s gathered from public comments, both in person and online, that the surrounding community wants passenger service.
“Unfortunately over the last few years, it hasn’t been able to meet their needs,” he said. The choice of airline, the plane used, and the frequency of flights are the keys to successful service, Faour said. Most people were satisfied with Silver’s plane, a 34-seat turboprop – but the flight service was lacking, he said.
“The biggest issues that we had with them were the schedule and then the pilot shortage,” Faour said. Silver flew once a day, six days a week, to Atlanta and Orlando; and, pleading a shortage of pilots, began delaying or canceling flights, he said.
“Silver Airways’ inability to bring in numbers wasn’t just based on (their service in) Macon. It’s the entire Atlanta market they shut down,” Faour said.
That made many people look for a more reliable way to get to Atlanta and make connections, he said.
Even so, passenger numbers were up last year for the first time in a decade, double 2012’s total, Faour said.
“Things were moving in the right direction,” he said.
Floore said most of the airport’s $200 million annual economic impact comes from aircraft repair and logistics, not passenger service. But if those businesses are to keep growing, as Mayor Robert Reichert aims, passenger service is one more possible spur to that growth, Floore said.
He acknowledges that after years of declining use, any new airline would need several years to rebuild its local customer base.
But last year’s uptick in business and the recent market study should attract a better carrier in a new round of bidding, Floore and Faour said.
“I believe the airport has gone through an incredibly difficult time, and just based on the numbers that are here, we’re going to see an upside,” Faour said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.