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...


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.

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