Flight Cuts at Macon Airport Irk Some

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.

The last time Dawn Wooten flew into Middle Georgia Regional Airport she had five options, but this time she only had two.

"There was a big difference when my travel agent told me my choices - a big difference," said Wooten, an education consultant based near Winston-Salem, N.C., as she waited in the airport's terminal Friday morning.

The airport's only carrier, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, cut its flight schedule after the Transportation Security Administration downgraded the airport's security rating, thus limiting the size of the airplanes that could fly out of the airport.

Like many business travelers, Wooten said she flies into Macon to avoid driving to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, so she stuck with Middle Georgia Regional.

It cost her. Wooten had to spend an extra night in Fort Valley in order to fly out Friday.

The airport only offers two outbound flights daily, at 6 a.m. and 7:25 a.m. and Wooten said she had to be up by 4:30 a.m. to make the "late flight."

"That's what I told my travel agent: 'I'll take the late flight,' " she said with a laugh.

Business travelers who use Middle Georgia Regional Airport said the flight changes are pushing them to Atlanta and airport officials admit that passenger numbers have dropped.

Before the flights were curtailed, they said, it was much easier to make connecting flights with a short layover, making it worthwhile for businesses to pay the premium for a Macon flight.

Now that the flights out of Macon are only in the morning and flights into Macon are in the evening, there are longer layovers for connecting flights, so the comparative advantage is diminished.

There were a number of business travelers at the airport Friday morning and many were heading home after working at Robins Air Force Base.

The base is one of the airport's primary users, said Chip Cherry, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

Wooten has used the airport regularly for seven years because it is convenient, she said, though she is disappointed by the changes. However, not all passengers have remained loyal to Middle Georgia Regional. In the seven weeks that the flight schedule has been cut short, the airport has lost passengers, admits George Brown, the city of Macon's director of aviation.

"There's been a significant fall off in travel," Brown said.

Neither Brown nor Atlantic Southeast Airlines could provide the number of passengers the airport lost after the airline curtailed its flight schedule.

Despite the changes, Brown said he hasn't gotten a lot of complaints.

"The general public has been very, very understanding," Brown said. "You would think that people would be raising the roof, but they're not."

The airport is making changes to comply with TSA guidelines and testing should begin next week on those changes, Brown said.

It could be as long 90 days before the airport has its flights back, Brown said. Once the changes are made, ASA has indicated it will bring its flights back, Brown said.

ASA only shuttles passengers back and forth to Atlanta, but the city spent more than $6 million to renovate Middle Georgia Regional and now is trying to lure another carrier. The city is in negotiations to bring in another feeder airline to travel to Washington-Dulles International Airport; Biloxi, Miss.; Detroit and Cincinnati.

The new airline announcement took a direct hit with the security downgrade, Brown said.

Cherry, who is also the president of the Macon Economic Development Commission, said that he has heard of many local business people who have curtailed or changed their plans because the new flight arrangement negates the airport's natural benefit: saving time.

The newly renovated airport is a big economic development asset for the area, but it took a hit with the security downgrade, Cherry said.

"It's a big asset for us, it's a big asset for Robins, a lot of (the airport's) load comes from Robins," Cherry said.

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