Macon flights to Atlanta stopping: Replacement service to be sought by DOT

Jul. 3--Delta Air Lines and Atlantic Southeast Airlines are killing off passenger flight service at Macon's Middle Georgia Regional Airport as of Oct. 1, pulling the plug on the airport's only regularly scheduled passenger route.

But because federal regulations require some service at the airport, the U.S. Department of Transportation says it will work to bring replacement flights to Atlanta on board before the October deadline.

Exactly what that means for regular service at the airport remains to be seen, but the department requires that Macon have at least two round-trip flights a day. To keep planes flying, those routes could end up being subsidized by federal taxpayers, according to a U.S. DOT spokesman.

News that ASA plans to end passenger service from Macon comes less than two weeks after the City Council agreed to hire Atlanta-based Aviation Advantage Inc. to start new air service to Washington, D.C. The hope is that service will begin in November, though Mike Anthony, the city's chief administrative officer and interim aviation director, said he didn't think a final contract had been signed.

Mayor Jack Ellis was out of the country Monday, his spokesman said, and was not reached for comment on the latest developments.

ASA has operated the Delta connection route for years, sending daily flights back and forth to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Although Delta sold ASA to SkyWest Inc. in 2005, ASA still operates Delta connection flights between Macon and Atlanta as part of the sale agreement.

Although the ASA flights are being discontinued, its maintenance operations at Middle Georgia Regional won't be affected, Delta spokesman Kent Landers and ASA spokeswoman Kate Modolo said.

That's good news for about 400 people working at the maintenance hub and for the airport's position as an economic driving force in the region.

But with fewer than 25 percent of the seats filled on a typical Macon-to-Atlanta flight during the past year, Delta and ASA are cutting their losses on regular passenger service, although the U.S. DOT may require them to keep some of the flights going until a replacement is found. The number of ASA flights out of the airport has varied during the years, but three round-trip flights to Atlanta are offered each weekday, Landers said.

News of the departure was treated Monday as a strong blow to the oft-struggling airport, but nothing like a death knell. General aviation with private pilots and the airport's role as a maintenance depot for ASA and Timco have more impact on the region, but it's "critical for the Macon regional airport to have passenger service," said Anthony.

"Important, but it's not critical," was the assessment of passenger service by Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

But longtime city aviation director Rex Elder, who is now retired, took the news like the death of an old friend.

"Wow," said Elder, who spent 35 years at the airport. "Boy, that's a blow. Makes me kind of sick in my stomach."

The airport has been on a roller coaster the past several years. In 2004 the city put the finishing touches on about $6 million in federally financed renovations that overhauled the airport's terminal. Most of those renovations were meant to make the airport more attractive to passengers, Elder said.

But in December 2005, a slew of violations came to light, and federal regulators threatened to shut down the facility. The city ended up spending about $100,000 on a private company to help get the airport back into compliance and keep passenger planes flying.

Ellis and City Council members have discussed letting that private company, TBI, manage the airport instead of hiring a new permanent director, but nothing has been finalized.

Throughout all of this, city officials, and most notably Ellis, have pushed to increase the routes offered at the Macon airport. For many years, service to Atlanta has been the only option. Officials have particularly hoped to add a route to Washington, D.C., and, though numerous efforts have failed, the most recent one holds promise.

The City Council approved a contract last month with Aviation Advantage to start daily service to Dulles International Airport.

It was unclear Monday whether such service would satisfy federal flight requirements for the airport.

Anthony said use of the Atlanta routes has trended up in the past six months or so, but ASA spokeswoman Modolo said she couldn't confirm that and that the airline wouldn't release a monthly breakdown on flight usage. She said service has "been decreasing over the past couple of years," and even if it had seen an uptick more recently, "the numbers in Macon were still below comparable markets in Georgia."

That might have something to do with price increases. As of Monday, a round-trip weekday flight to Atlanta and back cost $199 plus fees and taxes, according to www.delta.com [http://www.delta.com].

Cherry said he used to be able to book that sort of flight for $50. That was two years ago "and then things started moving up," Cherry said. With Hartsfield-Jackson about an hour and a half drive away from Macon, and Groome Transportation offering round-trip van service to the airport for $54, a $200 airline ticket just isn't in the cards for many people, Cherry said.

The U.S. DOT hadn't received a formal withdrawal notice from ASA as of Monday, said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the department. Once that comes -- Landers said it was filed Monday -- a 90-day notice clock starts ticking. The department will take bids to continue flights, then make a selection with the hope that a taxpayer subsidy won't be needed, Mosley said in an e-mail to The Telegraph.

The current service is unsubsidized, and if it takes a subsidy to keep routes open there is no set amount set aside for Macon, Mosley said. Nationally, though, the U.S. DOT budgeted to spend $107 million a year on these subsidies, Mosley said.

If necessary, the U.S. DOT could force ASA to continue its Macon service until another plan is in place.

Landers said the decision to cut the flights was based on usage and is not related to Delta's recent emergence from bankruptcy. In an e-mailed news release, he said that later this summer Delta will contact customers who have already booked flights after Oct. 1 to arrange alternative transportation or refunds. Customers wishing to change their reservations can contact Delta Reservations at (800) 221-1212.

Modolo said the 13 counter agents employed at the airport will be offered transfers within the company when Macon flight service is suspended.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call (478) 744-4213.

To see more of The Macon Telegraph, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.macon.com Copyright (c) 2007, The Macon Telegraph, Ga. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.



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