Columbus Metropolitan Airport Wants to Lure New Carrier

The impending growth of Fort Benning through the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure program would mean more trainees taking government-funded commercial flights to Columbus.

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.

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