Despite passenger loads that can often be counted on one hand, four carriers are seeking the chance to fly from Macon to Atlanta or other cities under federal subsidies ranging from $1.5 million to $2.5 million annually.
This is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s second try at finding a carrier to take over the flights, which have drawn attention - and some criticism - to subsidies aimed at ensuring air service to small and mid-size cities.
The airline currently on the Atlanta-Macon route, GeorgiaSkies, is not reapplying, and the first replacement chosen withdrew, forcing the DOT to start over. Now seeking the subsidy contract are Silver Airways, SeaPort Airlines, American Aviation Group and Sovereign Air.
Silver and SeaPort already operate subsidized flights in other cities in Georgia, and they are fast-growing participants in the subsidy program elsewhere. SeaPort won a contract last year for subsidized flights between Athens and Nashville.
“We think we can do something with [Macon] based on the success we’ve had in Athens,” SeaPort vice president Tim Sieber said. SeaPort proposes to fly from Macon to Nashville with a stop in Athens, but not Atlanta, and to Charlotte with nine-passenger planes similar to GeorgiaSkies aircraft, for an annual subsidy of about $2.5 million.
Silver proposes to fly from Macon to Atlanta and Orlando with 34-passenger planes for a subsidy of nearly $2 million annually. Silver began flying out of Atlanta last year with flights to six subsidized markets.
Macon is “sort of a natural progression for us,” said Silver Airways vice president Mickey Bowman, who sees his larger aircraft as an advantage in attracting customers.
The other two operators have competed for subsidized flights in the past. American Aviation Group proposes to do business as Sky King Airlines with flights to Atlanta and four other cities on 19-passenger planes for an initial subsidy of nearly $1.6 million annually. Sovereign Air proposes to fly from Macon to Atlanta with 15-or 19-passenger planes for a subsidy of at least $1.25 million annually.
GeorgiaSkies started flying between Macon and Atlanta in 2008 with an annual subsidy of $1.4 million. But the roughly 80-mile flights were often nearly empty and the subsidy amounted to about $464 per passenger in 2009.
In January 2011 GeorgiaSkies decided to fly without the subsidy. Fares went up and passenger counts further declined, and last year GeorgiaSkies said it would pull out of the market when a replacement was found.
The DOT in September selected Fort Lauderdale-based Sun Air International. But in December, Sun Air told the DOT it had “greater challenges than anticipated” and withdrew. The process started over.
The DOT told carriers it wanted proposals for flights from Macon to Atlanta but would consider flights to other hubs. Macon leaders would prefer flights to cities like Charlotte, Orlando, Jacksonville or Charleston, according to Chris Floore, a spokesman for Macon Mayor Robert Reichert.
“We know the market and the interest in flying to Atlanta from Macon has not been there for several years has not been there, and the flight data backs that up.”
Last September, GeorgiaSkies had a total of 38 passengers flying from Atlanta to Macon and it operated only 29 of 110 scheduled flights, according to federal statistics. The carrier does not operate flights when it has no passengers and subsidies are only paid for completed flights.
Macon officials plan to review the proposals and submit comments before the DOT makes its decision.
Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, recently likened people with pre-existing medical conditions to wrecked cars and appeared to suggest that the sick are at fault for their illnesses just as drivers are at fault for their accidents.