New flights to Atlanta in works: City in talks with small carrier about replacing Atlantic Southeast

Jul. 24--A small airline that operates in several Southeastern cities is interested in offering new flights from Macon to Atlanta, opening the door on a possible replacement for Atlantic Southeast Airlines.

Discussions with Wings Air are "very preliminary," said Mike Anthony, the city's chief administrative officer and interim aviation director. Plus, with TBI Airport Management set to take over day-to-day operations at Middle Georgia Regional Airport and the city's smaller downtown airport, company officials would have to be brought into the discussions, he said.

"We're just starting talks on it," Anthony said. "We've got some work to do. We need to get the chamber (of commerce) involved, ... but it's a great concept."

Wings Air President Robert Rupard said he's excited about the possibility, and that he envisions $99 tickets from Macon to Atlanta on as many as 12 flights a day. Rupard said he'd like to operate in concert with a major carrier and that he'll be talking to AirTran Airways soon.

ASA has been offering three round-trip flights a day to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, but the company cited low demand this month when it announced plans to stop passenger service.

Federal regulations allow the U.S. Department of Transportation to force ASA to keep at least two flights a day going beyond the announced October pullout if a replacement can't be found. Government subsidies are also available to keep somebody flying.

The next step is for the DOT to put out a request for proposals to replace ASA, and Anthony said he expects that will be done soon.

Meanwhile, the contract with TBI has been finalized and approved, and company officials are expected to sign it soon, Anthony said.

Then company and city officials will sit down and work out a transition plan, which will probably take about six months to fully implement, he said.

The city also has a deal to bring in a new charter service called Aviation Advantage to offer flights to the Washington, D.C., area. That company is expected to set up an office at Middle Georgia Regional Airport as early as this week and start its marketing efforts in anticipation of offering flights this fall.

A DOT grant, which the city won in 2005, will be used to help pay for the marketing, Anthony said. Normally that grant comes with a city match, but the company will pay that, he said.

Rupard's company offers flights to Atlanta from Asheville, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Destin, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., Nashville, Tenn., and St. Simons Island in Georgia, according to its Web site.

Those flights cost $279 for a one-way ticket, but Rupard said the shorter hop from Macon to Atlanta will allow him to cut that price significantly.

Rupard said he thinks travelers will jump at the chance to clear security in Macon and avoid the "big airport hassle" if the price is right.

"We had been looking at Athens," he said. "And I got with all the folks down in Macon and there's immense opportunity."

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.

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