While the search continues for a new commercial passenger carrier at Middle Georgia Regional Airport, the Transportation Security Administration agents who provided gate security have gone away.
“After the service ended, the agents made preparations to temporarily close their office and secure TSA assets,” airport manager Doug Faour said in an email. “The TSA agents assigned to Macon were reassigned to other locations.”
Silver Airways stopped its flights from Macon to Atlanta and to Orlando, Florida, on Nov. 5. The U.S. Department of Transportation reopened bidding on providing federally subsidized passenger service, for which Silver received $2 million per year.
No acceptable bids arrived by the Nov. 24 deadline, or by a Jan. 8 extension, so it was extended again to Feb. 26 at the request of Macon-Bibb County officials.
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Meanwhile, the agents who used to check passengers through the gate in Macon were given “administrative and collateral duties” instead and are now handling screenings at the Columbus airport several days a week, TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said. And their reassignment may be permanent.
In an email, Koshetz said that effective Feb. 8, “if no airline is identified to start airline service at Macon then these employees will be reassigned to other airports.”
The security checkpoint in Macon is closed and locked for now, Faour said. And that’s not the only closure connected to Silver’s departure.
“Hertz (car rental) is closing their Macon operation, citing the reduction of passenger service as a reason,” Faour said. That leaves Avis and Budget as the remaining rental options for travelers passing through Middle Georgia Regional Airport.
Middle Georgia Regional is one of many smaller airports that qualifies for subsidized flights to Atlanta under the Essential Air Service program. In 2014 the U.S. DOT warned Macon and 11 other airports that they might lose the funding, but on Sept. 26 gave them all a one-year reprieve.
Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore has said local officials want to take their time finding a new passenger carrier, one that will work to build up traffic and stay at the airport for a long time, instead of another service that might underperform and go away quickly.
Should a winning bid be chosen, the security checkpoint would reopen, Koshetz said.
“When the EAS contract is awarded and commercial airline service continues, TSA will restaff Macon with certified screening officers,” she said. “These officers may be the same (as before) or different employees.”
Koshetz and Faour said the TSA screeners are paid by the federal government, so it doesn’t cost the airport any money to have the federally mandated security agents there.
The U.S. DOT requires a certain level of passenger use in order to justify paying the EAS subsidy. Failing to reach that threshold of 10 passengers per day on average has cost many airports, including some in Georgia, that federal assistance.
When Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a Delta Air Lines subsidiary, flew from Middle Georgia Regional Airport, more than three times the minimum necessary number of fliers passed through there. But the Delta affiliate left in 2008, and passenger numbers plummeted under the smaller carriers that followed.
Silver won the contract in 2013 and started flights that April. It got an initial surge of business, but then began canceling many flights. A promised promotional campaign never materialized. Failing to reach the required passenger threshold, Silver sought an exit from its contract after just 17 months.
In the year prior to June 1, 2014, the airport handled about half the minimum number of passengers needed, according to the U.S. DOT.
Silver used a 34-seat Saab for its Macon service. A plane of about that size -- at any rate, larger than the nine-seat models some previous carriers used -- is essential if Macon is to have a chance of reaching the federal threshold.
Macon-Bibb officials want to see a destination offered besides Atlanta, figuring that will drive up passenger numbers. The top five destinations for Middle Georgia airline passengers are New York City; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; south Florida; and Las Vegas, Faour said.
“We continue to have conversations with a number of airlines that are considering Macon as a location,” he said. “We have no intentions of settling for a carrier that cannot meet the needs of the community, and we are very focused in our search.”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.