Silver Airways Seeks to Leave Macon Service

Aug. 19--As Silver Airways asks to be let out of its contract to provide passenger service from Middle Georgia Regional Airport, Macon-Bibb County wants federal officials to allow a major reset in how eligibility for an air service subsidy is calculated.

"We would like to start fresh in October," Airport Manager Doug Faour said.

Silver Airways, which has provided passenger flights to Atlanta and Orlando since April 2013, filed a notice of intent Aug. 5 with the U.S. Department of Transportation, asking to be let out of the rest of its two-year contract. Flights to and from Macon would stop Nov. 5 or earlier if federal authorities allow, the notice says.

"Prior to ending its scheduled air services at MCN, Silver Airways will contact all passengers holding reservations on discontinued flights to notify them of the schedule change and assist them in arranging alternate transportation or provide them with a refund of their ticket price, without penalty, if requested," wrote James Kogutek, vice president of Silver.

For many years, commercial passenger service at Middle Georgia Regional Airport has only been provided because of the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes an airline for offering flights at smaller cities. Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Silver Airways receives a $2 million annual subsidy for its flights to Atlanta and Orlando, Florida, six days a week.

But federal rules for getting that money require an average of at least 10 passengers per flight, and in April local officials were notified that Macon-Bibb would probably lose the subsidy due to lack of passengers.

"In late June, we received notice that the numbers were finalized, we were slated to lose the EAS program, and that we could appeal this decision," Faour said in an email.

Macon-Bibb filed an appeal, arguing that the low use was temporary.

Passenger flights from Macon to Atlanta drew plenty of passengers for years, when Delta subsidiary Atlantic Southeastern Airlines had the contract, but use declined steeply after 2008 when GeorgiaSkies took over, the appeal says.

GeorgiaSkies didn't initially have the same agreements with major carriers that Atlantic Southern did, meaning extra hassle for passengers transferring baggage and changing to connecting flights. Then GeorgiaSkies began canceling many flights -- about 300 between October 2012 and March 2013, including one three-week period without any flights at all, the appeal records show. That drove public confidence in the service to new lows before Silver took over.

Numbers provided by Faour show a surge in passenger traffic for several months after Silver's arrival, but since then numbers fell back between those highs and GeorgiaSkies' averages.

"Silver Airways was a welcomed change at first, but it was not long before their service deteriorated," the appeal says. Silver began canceling flights too, blaming a shortage of pilots, according to the appeal.

In April, Silver announced it wanted to stop flights to Atlanta from one Alabama and four Mississippi cities -- all of its "Atlanta market" cities except Macon, Faour said.

"So we had an inkling that this would be coming," Faour said. Local officials' last contact with Silver was around that time, he said.

Macon-Bibb's appeal says the local service was only retained then because Silver uses Middle Georgia Regional Airport as a "maintenance bridge" for its planes between Orlando and Washington, D.C. But the airline is opening a new maintenance facility in Pennsylvania and no longer needs to stop here, the petition says.

That's supported by a Monday statement from Misty Pinson, Silver's director of public relations and communications.

"As part of Silver Airways' plan to strengthen operations, increase revenue, reduce costs, and better position the airline for future growth and other opportunities, we made the announcement earlier this year of our plans to exit much of our Atlanta network in order to redeploy our aircraft and team members to other key markets," she said via email. "Multiple factors have combined to make it uneconomical for us to continue flying in these markets, including new federal regulations related to pilot flight and duty limitations, increased requirements related to new hire pilot certification, lower than expected passenger enplanements in most of our Atlanta-network cities, and lack of a network carrier partner in the Atlanta network."

Silver's notice to the U.S. Department of Transportation argues that new, tighter requirements on pilot rest and qualifications make it hard to find enough pilots in the face of an industrywide shortage. With its passenger numbers already well below expectations, the impending end of the EAS subsidy means the airline just can't afford to keep providing local service, the notice says.

Macon-Bibb's appeal adds that about 40 percent of possible connecting flights from Atlanta have already left by the time Silver's flight from Macon arrives, limiting the local service's usefulness for making easy connections. Also, Silver isn't certified for official use by the U.S. Department of Defense, meaning that many potential passengers from Robins Air Force Base can't use it for regular business, the appeal says.

Macon-Bibb's appeal asks the U.S. Department of Transportation to formally suspend the EAS service no later than Sept. 30. That's because local officials also want to seek another airline to provide passenger service again -- and don't want the next carrier's average passenger numbers pulled down by previous lows.

"Due to Silver Airways' clear intention to vacate MCN, ties should be severed to prevent unnecessary expenses and to clear the way for a new airline," Faour said via email.

Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said that would allow passenger counts to restart Oct. 1, hopefully with a new carrier.

No reply to Macon-Bibb's appeal has been heard yet, and there's no telling when it might come, Faour said.

Past use and current potential show there's a ready market for good passenger service from Macon, he said.

A recent market study by Sixel Consulting Group found that people from 19 Middle Georgia counties took nearly 1.2 million passenger flights in 2013, with about half coming from Bibb and Houston counties; but almost all of them flew out of Atlanta.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

Copyright 2014 - The Macon Telegraph