Macon flights hit possible $3 million snag

Aug. 29--The federal government's plan to keep commercial planes flying out of Middle Georgia Regional Airport has hit a little turbulence.

Namely, Delta Air Lines and its partner Atlantic Southeast Airlines -- which recently announced their intention to stop offering flights come October -- were the only volunteers to keep flying out of Macon. But they want about $3 million in annual taxpayer subsidies to do it.

That amount is three times the average subsidy the federal government pays to various airports in the essential air service program, which guarantees a certain number of flights from small and mid-sized cities.

"We got one proposal, but because the subsidy, we thought, was very high, we're seeking other proposals," U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley said Tuesday.

The new proposals are due Sept. 20, and then the department will move forward in its effort to replace Delta and ASA -- hopefully without any subsidy, or a much smaller one.

Middle Georgia Regional Airport has received federal funding through the years, but never an essential air service grant to directly fund a carrier's operations, according to the U.S. DOT. Nationwide, the federal government spends more than $96.5 million a year on these subsidies at 104 airports, according to an April 2007 report available through the department's Web site. The only Georgia airport receiving a subsidy as of that report was Athens, where Air Midwest airlines received about $625,000 a year to operate service to Charlotte, N.C.

The subsidy program began in the late 1970s as part of deregulation of the airline industry, U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., said Tuesday. The thinking was that certain areas might lose air service without the grants, which could cripple economic development, Marshall said.

The number of airports in the program has gone down over the past few years, he said.

"The program exists," Marshall said. "We can debate whether that's wise for the country. But given that it does exist ... if folks in my district can get some advantage out of that program, then I'm interested in helping them do it."

ASA operates the only commercial flights out of Middle Georgia Regional, but the Delta Connection's partner announced in July that its Atlanta routes weren't making money, and it would shut them down in October.

But that timetable can be delayed significantly by the U.S. DOT, which has the power to hold ASA in place until it finds a replacement or comes up with a deal to keep ASA flying out of Macon long term.

But ASA uses larger aircraft than the department sees being economical for the airport, leading to the higher subsidy request, and the department will go looking for airlines that operate smaller craft, its latest request for proposals states.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Middle Georgia Regional Airport generated 24,086 passengers, according to the re-bidding document.

"That passenger level could be accommodated on three round trips a day with 19-seat aircraft ... and we would expect that the subsidy requirement, if any, would be relatively small," the document states. "Our goal is to relieve ASA of its obligation to provide service at Macon as soon as possible. In the meantime, we will continue to require ASA to serve Macon until replacement service begins."

The department's initial request for proposals also included an encouragement for smaller carriers to bid. But none did.

There may be a simple solution, though. Wings Air President Robert Rupard said Tuesday that he plans to be in Macon today to meet with Mayor Jack Ellis about offering numerous daily flights to Atlanta from Macon's Middle Georgia Regional Airport. Rupard said he will file a proposal with the DOT and that he didn't bid the first time because he didn't know bids had been solicited.

Rupard said he had heard from city officials that they would be solicited but not that the process had started.

"You can count on (us bidding)," he said. "And we'll do it for a heck of a lot less."

Wings Air operates out of several Southeastern cities, providing hop-flights to Atlanta. The city also has been working with Aviation Advantage, which Mike Anthony, the city's interim aviation director and chief administrative officer, said in July was anticipating starting flights from Macon to Washington D.C. this fall.

That service is going to be subsidized, in part, through a separate U.S. DOT grant, which the city won in 2005 to help airlines market new routes.

An attempt to reach Anthony for an update Tuesday on Wings Air and Aviation Advantage negotiations was not successful. An attempt to reach a Delta spokesman for comment also was unsuccessful.

ASA's decision to stop commercial flights won't have any effect on its maintenance hub at Middle Georgia Regional, which employs about 400 people at the airport complex, a company spokesman said last month.

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