Columbus Metropolitan Airport Wants to Lure New Carrier

You can learn a lot by sitting in the commercial terminal at Columbus Metropolitan Airport for a few hours.

People wait in a line about 90 feet long to go through the Transportation Security Administration gate. Everyone will be screened in less than 30 minutes.

Young adults are in the line. Lots of them. Mostly men with crew cuts and duffel bags -- freshly made soldiers.

Older travelers stand in line, too. They wear golf shirts adorned with sharks or palm trees, straw hats and white pants. Island wear.

These civilians appreciate the short lines for security screening -- once they arrive at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, they will walk to their connecting flight without going through security checks there.

Their numbers have been in steady decline for a decade. It's estimated 75 percent of local consumers now choose to take ground transportation to Atlanta's airport rather than sit and read in the relative solitude of Columbus' airport.

Months after Atlantic Southeast Airlines was sold by struggling Delta Air Lines, these passengers are still taking ASA flights out of Columbus. But they pay for it. ASA is currently the only carrier, with a take-it-or-leave-it price for consumers.

What can't be seen is the impending growth of Fort Benning through the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure program, which would mean more trainees taking government-funded commercial flights to Columbus. That has airport officials thinking they can lure a new carrier -- which would provide competition, which would lower fares, which would attract more people back to the airport.

Customer service

It's likely ASA lost Gloria Holloway as a customer in May.

After retiring from the Air Force, Holloway was returning home to Columbus after 24 years. On the final leg of her trip home from Anchorage, Alaska, things went astray.

"It was terrible," she said. "It was late. It was really hot... And it just shook really bad. People behind me were throwing up. And the pilots didn't even come on and apologize. It was obvious they didn't care."

The luggage was being sent on another flight, but she said she and the other passengers weren't told until landing in Columbus.

Complaints about ASA in Columbus often include its service and a price for an 18-minute flight that can add about $200 to a round trip with a connection to Atlanta. However, on Sept. 29, there was a trip from Columbus to Nashville, Tenn., via Atlanta that cost just $30 more than the cheapest flight to Nashville from Atlanta. Still, ASA's options are also limited to just four flights daily during the current off-peak season, and five during the holiday and summer seasons.

High cost and reliability of service have chased many of Columbus' business travelers from their home airport, too. For example, 60 percent to 70 percent of Aflac's business travel is done on one of its two corporate jets or by driving to Hartsfield-Jackson for flights, said David Nelson, Aflac's vice president of travel, meetings and incentives.

"I have met with ASA on numerous occasions in the past and have not been very successful in pointing out these kinds of challenges they have," Nelson said.

Local businesses that hangar private planes at the airport include Synovus/TSYS, W.C. Bradley Co., Bill Heard Enterprises, Carl Gregory and the Butler Wooten legal firm.

Nelson said Aflacasks its employees to find a cheaper way of getting to Atlanta.

"I think all of us are looking at our bottom lines and where we can reduce and save money -- and ASA is, too," Nelson said.

Groome cleaning up

Many people drive to Atlanta or use Groome Transportation's shuttle service to save money.

In a study requested by the airport, Innova Aviation Consulting estimates ASA flies between 50,000 and 62,500 travelers annually. That's about a quarter of the 200,000 to 250,000 people in the Columbus market who fly out of Atlanta each year.

Sandy Rohrbouth of Cambridge, Ohio, was among that minority when she chose to fly to Columbus for her grandson's basic training graduation.

After the graduation, the rest of her family took ground transportation to Atlanta's airport, while she sat outside the Columbus airport's security checkpoint and read a Danielle Steele novel -- wishing she had made a different choice.

"If I'd known it was going to be like this, I probably would have driven from Ohio," Rohrbouth said. She paid $400 to fly directly into Columbus, but when she arrived in Atlanta, her plane was canceled because of weather. Rohrbouth paid $37 for a one-way shuttle ride on Groome Transportation, a ride she said was filled with "sunshine the entire way."

Rohrbouth said Columbus' airport was clean and gave her a quiet place to read her book. The security was less cumbersome than at larger airports, too.

But don't expect to see her here again.

"Flying is not the same as it used to be, that's for sure. Everything was on schedule and you felt it was a privilege," she said of her flying experiences years ago. "Every time I've flown in the last two years, something has gone awry."

But when asked if she would be willing to pay more for old-fashioned service, Rohrbouth couldn't name her price.

"I probably wouldn't have wanted to spend more money, but I might have felt more secure doing so."

Rohrbouth's sentiment is one shared by many local consumers. It's been Groome's boon for business.

Vince Groome, CEO of Groome Transportation, would not say what portion of the 75 percent of travelers who choose to take Interstate 185 to the Atlanta airport let Groome drive them. But few argue Groome is the market leader.

Mike Gaymon, president and CEO of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, applauded the foresight of the familyrun business.

"I'm proud for Groome," he said. "They said, 'Here's a market and we're going to serve it' and they've done very well. The airport hasn't."

The Richmond, Va.-based chain opened in Columbus in 1996, with 12 vans running 14 times daily during the week and 11 times on Saturday and Sunday between Columbus and Atlanta's airport.

Today, the business has 18 vans and two mini-busesrunning 19 daily trips. The company will nearly double the size of its Columbus parking lot to hold about 500 cars by November.

When fuel prices increased recently, Groome said the company saw a jump in ridership that kept it from having to raise fares.

Groome said he is not out to kill the airport, but he does acknowledge ASA as his direct competitor.

"We depend on Delta; we don't depend on ASA," Groome said. "We depend on that hub."

Fort Benning's impact

If you ever wonder how the Columbus airport has survived the turbulence of the airline industry, go to Propellers restaurant in the lobby and look up at the ceiling. There's an answer staring back -- a ceiling fan styled with the red-tip nose and sharks' teeth reminiscent of a Tigershark Warbirdairplane.

This is a military town. And this airport is here to transport those who serve and protect.

Don Cook, chairman of the Airport Authority's governing commission, knows this. So when he talks about expanding service, he first talks about Fort Benning.

"BRAC allowed us to get real numbers," Cook said. He believes these are the numbers necessary to lure more air service.

ASA currently directs 29,000 Fort Benning-related travelers through Columbus annually -- nearly half of the airport's annual traffic in 2004 -- according to Chuck Walls, Fort Benning's deputy garrison commander. That includes family members who come for graduations and soldiers and officials ontemporary assignments in Washington.

By 2010, that estimate could reach 37,000-40,000 travelers annually.

Airport Director Mark Oropeza knows the importance of these numbers, too.

In the late 1980s, Oropeza went to American Airlines' home office in Dallas to try to convince it to begin service in Columbus.

In what he said was an unusually candid moment, an airline executive told him, "The dilemma is that it takes between $400,000 and $600,000 to start up a station. If we guess wrong, that's money we're not getting back. It's not like we've bought a building and a bunch of land. We need assurances from the ticket buyer."

That visit did not immediately land American in Columbus, but eventually the company's subsidiary, American Eagle, did operate at the airport from 1989-1995.

Oropeza said start-up costs have only inflated since then.

In the industry's current state, air carriers aren't playing politics and aren't impressed by corporate promises. Their growth is strictly dependent upon data such as population density, growth and median income.

But Cook said the community's growth, including Fort Benning, shouldn't be ignored.The commission is preparing for the future. He said that even though the community isn't exactly begging for more services, tens of thousands of future residents and soldiers might feel differently. "We can't wait for that to happen. We have to envision that today," Cook said.

Officials at Fort Benning are trying to help Cook paint a picture of the local market that will appeal to another carrier, Walls said. He feels better about the commission's approach to the situation than he has at any other time in his nine years at Fort Benning.

"I think they've approached it with a different degree of seriousness," Walls said. "I think there's a strong sense of urgency. I think it was inevitable. Every airport has a point where they have to start looking at itself like that."

Making a pitch

Columbus needs more air passengers like George Dickson. The 66-year-old retiree flies at least once a year to vacation in New York.

"I'm too lazy to drive to Atlanta," Dickson said. "There I have to find a place to park. It takes less than 15 minutes to drive from my house to here. It's easier."

To lure a new air carrier, the chamber of commerce and airport commission are going to need the support of citizens that share this viewpoint, according to Barney Parella of Innova Aviation Consulting. Parella is conducting market research for Columbus Metropolitan Airport.

"The civic community can be the focal point for marketing efforts and contacts with the airlines, but behind it all has to be the focus and support of the community," Parella said.

But rallying such support will not be easy.

The recent history of airlines abandoning Columbus has left consumers wanting for competitive air fares. So they've sought competition elsewhere.

In research done Sept. 27, the best price for a flight from Columbus to Chicago was $410.89. That included a layover as long as 3 hours and 45 minutes to connect to an American Airlines fight in Atlanta.

Comparatively, the total price for a flight from Atlanta with a Groome Transportation shuttle was $255.40. To drive, it would cost $224.72 for a plane ticket plus the cost of fuel for a vehicle that gets 26 miles per gallon. Economy parking costs another $8 per day. Oropeza said the city's travelers have developed "the Hartsfield habit," and now see Atlanta's airport as their own.

Additional carriers, he said, would alleviate the problem because the competition could force ASA to lower its prices and concentrate on better service.

But it will be tough to lure a carrier with the airline industry so weak.

A representative from US Airways declined to speak about Columbus specifically, but said its most recent growth had been in Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. After nine years of service, US Airways pulled out of Columbus in February 2003.

American Airlines also wouldn't discuss Columbus' operations. But spokesman Tim Smith said the regional carrier American Eagle is always considering opportunities as markets evolve.

American Eagle left Columbus in October 1995.

Smith said that while the carrier reconsiders markets, "... we have finite resources in terms of aircraft, the people who fly them, ground-handling services..."

The regional airline subsidiaries owned by the major legacy airlines -- Delta, Continental, United, American, Northwest, and the recently merged America West and US Airways -- plan to add just 16 total aircraft in 2006, according to a January2005 report by Tampa-based investment firm Raymond James & Associates.

The report said ASA and SkyWest have planned no growth. Another Delta subsidiary, Republic Airways, plans to add eight regional jets, as will Continental's ExpressJet.

The report said the most likely players to expand service are large regional carriers, such as JetBlue and AirTran, and mid-size markets such as Nashville are the most likely targets.

ASA stays

SkyWest, ASA's new owner, intends to run ASA as a separate company, despite the fact that the deal nearly doubled SkyWest's size. The company now has primary hubs in nine cities, including Atlanta, and flies more than 2,400 routes for Delta Connection and United Express.

Delta sold ASA in August in a deal that's structured similarly to home ownership and renting. Delta is hemorrhaging cash and can't afford to rack up anymore debt, so it sold ASA for $350 million in cash, but has continued renting it. Delta controls ASA's routes and collects all revenue from fares.

SkyWest assumes the risks of caring for ASA's planes and employees, but should see long-term value in owning the airline Delta worked to build when it bought ASA for $700 million in 1999. It's in SkyWest's best interest for the legacy carrier to emerge from bankruptcy protection so that it won't have to risk either finding a new tenant orrunning its own properties.

Either way, ASA service in Columbus seems secure for the moment. Delta controls removing or expanding the operation, but it has a near-guaranteed number of soldiers traveling annually to Fort Benning. It seems unlikely to change its services until that number of passengers changes, too.

Airport director Oropeza said ASA officials told him not to expect any changes.

Luring travelers

The airport itself is changing its approach to customers, too. Both Gaymon and Cook have said the airport will be open to ideas that make it a transportation center for Columbus -- not just a center of air service.

Gaymon said this change in mindset marks a big step.

"To some degree, the airport in the past had a landlord mentality," Gaymon said. "It's easy to say it's not the airport's fault, it's the airline's fault."

He said one example would be for the Columbus airport to consider bringing ground shuttle service to the airport's front door when flights are canceled, as opposed to leaving travelers to fend for themselves.

Cook said as high-speed rail becomes a viable nationwide service, the airport should be Columbus' connection. He would also like to expand services between Fort Benning and the airport.

The airport is currently improving with a $4 million construction project to straighten the taxiway where jets roll to the terminal after landing. Currently, its taxiway curves, which would be more difficult to navigate for larger planes.

The airport is also buildinga 1,000-foot safety over-run -- a dirt patch that would cushion the landing if a plane couldn't stop on the existing 7,000-foot runway. Finally, the airport is clearing some of the trees near its runway, as the area attracts wildlife that threatens to interfere with runway traffic.

The project is being paid for with grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, state government and airport funds.

Upon that project's completion, the airport will officially be ready for a new air carrier, possibly one with larger jets. The community's leaders will have done all they can to change air transportation in Columbus.

Don Cook believes they will succeed.

"Somebody's going to have us on the radar," Cook said, "because there's business to be had."

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