Council committee OKs plan for outside airport management

Jul. 11--Nearly a year and a half after TBI Airport Management was hired to rescue Middle Georgia Regional Airport from a potential federally mandated shutdown, the Macon City Council is being asked to approve a contract for TBI to manage the city's airports.

A contract with TBI, which administration officials have been negotiating off and on for more than a year, cleared the council's Public Properties Committee in a unanimous vote Tuesday.

That sets up a full council vote for as soon as next Tuesday at its next regular meeting.

Under the deal, which Mayor Jack Ellis has been trying to shepherd through the council for months, TBI essentially would act as director for Middle Georgia Regional and the smaller Macon Downtown Airport, which serves private pilots.

Neither facility has had a full-time director since December 2005, when the former director was ousted as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration came down hard on the city for airport violations that threatened to ground passenger service at Middle Georgia Regional.

Since then, Middle Georgia Regional has recovered and kept its passenger status, in large part due to TBI's expertise in meeting regulations, city officials have said repeatedly. Even so, Delta and its connection carrier, Atlantic Southeastern Airlines, announced July 1 that they're pulling their three daily flights to Atlanta starting in October. Federal regulations give the U.S. Department of Transportation the power to keep them flying from the airport or to use taxpayer subsidies to bring in replacement flights, but the announcement still amounted to a body blow for the beleaguered facility.

TBI would use its long experience with other airports -- including Orlando Sanford International Airport -- to grow Middle Georgia Regional, Ellis has said. Tuesday, the mayor thanked council members for moving his proposal forward and opening the door to public-private airport operations.

"I think future generations will look favorably (on this deal)," Ellis said.

John Green, a TBI vice president working with the city, told council members he sees a lot of potential at the city's main airport and promised that "we won't let you down."

Under the contract that still must be voted on by the full council, the city would pay TBI $135,000 a year to manage the airport. That's the "lowest (management fee) I've ever heard of in the business," Green said Tuesday.

The city would fund operations at the airports, meaning the facilities budget will stay in place for the rest of this fiscal year. After that, the mayor and council would have to sign off on any increases, Green said.

The contract also has incentives for TBI to grow passenger traffic at Middle Georgia Regional. That traffic generates revenue for the city and for local businesses directly through passenger fees and indirectly through various economic impacts such as car rentals. The company would take 25 percent of any operating profits from the airports, according to the contract. The city also would pay TBI 75 cents for each departing passenger once the threshold of 50,000 passengers a year is crossed. That would represent huge growth at Middle Georgia Regional, which hasn't seen 38,000 departing passengers a year in at least five years, according to figures from the city.

In fact, Middle Georgia Regional hit a five-year low for passengers in 2006, with just under 17,000 departing from the airport, the figures show. It has seen an upswing so far this year, partly due to the city offering free parking at the airport. But that wasn't enough to keep Delta and ASA from announcing a pullout.

Tuesday, Ellis and several council members expressed high hopes for Middle Georgia Regional, particularly with the recent announcement that the FAA will study the need for a second major airport in Georgia to back up Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Ellis said he's talked to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Hartsfield-Jackson's director and was assured that Macon's airport will be a part of that study.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.

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