Although the Middle Georgia Regional Airport is only a federal rubber stamp away from having its security system officially upgraded, city officials are back to step one in luring in another airline, Mayor Jack Ellis said Tuesday.
During a 30-minute news conference at the airport, the mayor said the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce and city officials will meet in coming weeks with corporate leaders to discuss funding a travel bank to help support an airline that will fly routes beyond Atlanta.
"I hope we can announce before the end of the year that not one, but two new airlines will be coming in," Ellis said.
Ellis said he'd also like to talk with Atlantic Southeast Airlines - the only commercial carrier currently flying out of Macon - about expanding its routes, possibly to Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., or Memphis, Tenn.
Most of ASA's flights use Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the only place where commercial air travelers can fly nonstop from Macon.
At the beginning of the year, city leaders said that by March they expected a new carrier to fly a 122-seat aircraft with markets in Washington, D.C., and Gulfport, Miss.
But in mid-January, the federal Transportation Security Agency downgraded the airport from Class III status to Class IV status because of inadequate security, and ASA was forced to cut daily flights from five to two.
The downgrade meant airplanes with more than 60 seats were not permitted to fly in or out of the airport.
Ellis, holding his fingers about an inch apart, said Tuesday the city was "that close" to bringing in a new carrier, which he declined to name - but officials with the airline backed out after the airport was downgraded.
He said the city would again try to secure an airline but didn't know when it would be successful.
He said Macon must first create a travel bank in which local businesses pledge an amount of money that would be placed in an escrow account and spent with the airline during a set period, up to a year.
The idea is to collect money from local businesses and industries that will use the flights, to show the airlines there is enough support to provide the service.
To city will also apply for a $500,000 U.S. Department of Transportation grant to help fund the bank. Macon tried unsuccessfully to fund a travel bank in 2003.
"We hope these plans come to fruition in the very near future, but we don't have a date in mind," said Ellis, adding that local congressional leaders will also participate in a "full-court press" to help get federal dollars to support the initiative.
"We have several (carriers) in mind that we've been talking to, and we think the (travel bank) will get us over the hump," Ellis said.
Last week, regional TSA officials inspected the airport's upgraded security system and gave the airport the go-ahead to increase its flights. The airport is now considered a Class III "servicing" airport, and is expected to get an official stamp from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in coming weeks, said Glenn Collins, acting federal security director with TSA. Upgrades in the airport's system included more surveillance monitors, cyber locks and additional fencing.
"Once you get through here, you're in the system," the mayor said. "And we've made it difficult, if not impossible for someone" to illegally get in or bring something illegal onboard a plane.
Also last week, ASA last week announced it would add a third flight a day between Macon and Atlanta on May 1.
Ellis on Tuesday said he'd like for ASA to add the other two that were lost during the downgrade and hopes to meet with airline officials to discuss the possibility further.
ASA spokeswoman Gina Pesko could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Atlantic Southeast Airlines cut its flight schedule after the TSA downgraded the airport's security rating, thus limiting the size of the airplanes that could fly out of the airport.
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