Flight Cuts at Macon Airport Irk Some

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.

Transportation officials at Robins do not keep a breakdown of flights to and from Macon, but said that Robins employees can arrange to fly out of Macon or Atlanta. Betty Pubanz, a passenger travel supervisor with the 78th Logistics Readiness Squadron, said her five-member section arranges all official air travel for civilians and military on the base.

In an typical week, Pubanz said, she arranges more than 300 flights out of Macon or Atlanta, though she said to this point there hasn't been a change in preferences.

"I really haven't noticed a difference," said Pubanz, who has been working at the base since 1981. "They've always been able to choose what airport they travel out of."

The preferences have changed overall, according to one business. Groome Transportation, which operates a shuttle service from Macon and Warner Robins to Hartsfield-Jackson, has seen a big jumps recently.

Nearly every run is full, said Vince Groome, president of the company.

"Absolutely, I would tell you that has something to do with it because we compete with that (air) service," Groome said.

Pesko said that the flights that ASA kept in Macon are meant to allow business people to fly out in the morning and fly back in the evening, completing their travel all in one day, she said.

"The two regional jet flights operating today are geared toward the business traveler - they depart early in the morning and return in the evening," Pesko said.

However, many of the business travelers at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport on Friday said the flights were at least inconvenient, if not downright inefficient.

David Witteried, a civilian Air Force worker, had been working at Robins Air Force Base before heading home Friday on the 7:25 a.m. flight. Witteried said he would have preferred a later flight, as he headed back to California.

"I had to get up early and being from back west it's really early for me," he said.

Paul Woodlief, a civilian worker with the Department of Defense, was flying to Richmond, Va., Friday morning, but would have worked for the remainder of the day at Robins, he said.

"I don't have any complaints or anything, but I would have flown out at 6 p.m. if I could have and gotten a flight," he said.

Jeff and Edith Jeffers were flying to Norfolk on Friday morning for a visit. The two are retired, but Edith worked for Avon as a district sales manager and division sales manager for 18 years. She said she often used the airport because it was too slow to fly out of Atlanta.

When she learned about the changes in flights she thought back to her days in the work force and what the current schedule might have done to her.

"I never would have made a meeting or anything - I would have always been late," she said.