Feb. 28--Federal officials have chosen a new airline to provide passenger flights from Middle Georgia Regional Airport, and the winning company, Silver Airways, promises cheap flights not just to Atlanta but also to Orlando, Fla.
"We're excited to spread our wings to Macon, Georgia, and serve the people of this proud community," said Mickey Bowman, Silver's vice president for Essential Air Service, in an e-mailed statement. "We're on-pace to launch service to Macon on April 1, 2013, pending standard regulatory clearances from the FAA."
Silver Airways won the 2013 Regional Airline of the Year Award from Air Transport Magazine, the first U.S.-based airline to win that award since 2008, according to a company news release.
In its January bid for the federal Essential Air Service subsidy, Silver asked for $1,998,696 per year to offer one round-trip flight each weekday to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and one round trip on weekends; and the same flight schedule to Orlando International Airport. Flights would be on a 34-passenger Saab 340B+ turboprop.
The airline projected $44.90 one-way fares to Atlanta and $116.67 to Orlando.
The announcement was welcome news to Macon Mayor Robert Reichert.
"We are very pleased and excited with the decision of the U.S. Department of Transportation to award this EAS contract to Silver Airways," he said Wednesday.
The medium-size Saab should be comfortable for local passengers, and the added option of flights to Orlando -- like Atlanta, a hub city for many large airlines -- will be "very beneficial" in providing access to more destinations for low prices with less hassle, Reichert said.
A news conference to introduce the company is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at the airport. One of the Saab turboprops will be on display then.
Pulling out of a nosedive
The subsidy agreement is expected to last for two years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation order released Wednesday. But if it's to continue after 2013, Silver Airways must find some way to get at least 10 passengers per day flying through Macon, the order says. In the last fiscal year, the current subsidy holder, GeorgiaSkies, averaged just three passengers per day on its Atlanta round trips -- and monthly reports indicate those numbers have slid further still.
The city's news release acknowledges the drop-off from a decade ago, when about 20,000 passengers per year flew in and out of Macon.
"In the past, passenger air service between Macon and Atlanta has steadily declined to the point where it has become almost nonexistent," said the announcement from Chris Floore, Macon's public affairs director. The city hopes current numbers can be pumped up, though the bulk of the airport's $200 million annual economic impact is from aircraft maintenance and cargo traffic.
But the fact that 20,000 passengers once used the subsidized service shows Macon's potential, according to Bowman. Silver Airways hopes to draw on traffic between Robins Air Force Base to Patrick Air Force Base in Orlando, plus carry Middle Georgians to tourist attractions such as Disney World, Sea World and Universal Orlando.
Uncertain service, troubled bids
GeorgiaSkies, a subsidiary of Pacific Wings, has held the EAS subsidy since 2008, offering daily flights to and from Atlanta. In December 2011 the company announced it would try that service without the federal subsidy, substantially increasing the ticket price. Public use plunged still further, and in April 2012 GeorgiaSkies sought to stop flying from Macon.
But federal officials -- while restoring the subsidy -- ordered GeorgiaSkies to continue until a new carrier was found. In September, Sun Air Express was announced as the winning bidder, but that company withdrew in December, before starting its flights. GeorgiaSkies was ordered to keep serving Macon at least through March 23, though for at least a week or so the company's one Macon-based plane was broken down and no flights were provided.
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