Atlanta-Macon flights draw light loads, federal dollars

If you’re fed up with flights packed with passengers and crowded overhead bins, try flying from Atlanta to Macon.

The 20-minute, roughly 80-mile flights are operated with nine-passenger planes that are usually nearly empty. Sometimes, no one’s on board but the two pilots.

What keeps the flights going? A $1.4 million annual federal subsidy that, based on 2009 passenger counts, amounted to $464 for each round-trip booked on the route.

Despite the sparse loads, four small aviation companies are vying for the subsidy contract, which is up for renewal this fall by the U.S. Department of Transportation. But the DOT could decide to end the subsidy, imperiling Macon’s tenuous status as a spoke from the world’s busiest airline hub.

It all started when Delta Air Lines decided three years ago to ditch its non-subsidized Delta Connection service between Hartsfield-Jackson International and Macon’s Middle Georgia Regional Airport on 50- to 66-seat planes. The DOT stepped in to preserve service to Macon under something called the Essential Air Service program.

A vestige of the long-ago days of regulated air service, when a federal board oversaw air routes and prices, the program ensures that certain smaller cities and rural areas are not left without service. The subsidy supplements the revenue of an airline chosen for the route.

After Delta said it would pull its flights from Macon, the DOT paid Delta to continue the service until it chose tiny GeorgiaSkies to take over. But GeorgiaSkies, which flies from Atlanta to Macon four times a day, has carried far fewer passengers than Delta.

The number of people flying the route last year averaged out to fewer than five a day each way. The DOT agreed to give GeorgiaSkies a $1.4 million subsidy, which worked out to $464 per round-trip passenger.

“That’s outrageous,” said Christopher Pelletier, one of two passengers -- not counting a reporter and photographer -- on a return flight to Atlanta Monday. He is from Seattle and has taken the Atlanta-Macon flight several times to visit family in the Warner Robins area. He said there’s never been more than one other passenger.

The service is a convenience, he said, adding, “but we’re all paying for that.”

Fares on the route are $39 each way on GeorgiaSkies’ Web site.

With GeorgiaSkies’ two-year contract almost up, the government asked for proposals from airlines for the service and got them from four, including GeorgiaSkies. All propose varying subsidy amounts going forward, ranging from $571,949 to $2.7 million yearly.

However, last year’s subsidy exceeded the $200 per passenger cap under the Essential Air Service program, and the DOT expects to make a decision in August on the bids and whether to continue the subsidy at all.

And so Macon -- birthplace of the aviation company that eventually became Delta -- is at risk of losing airline flights after decades of service.

Metro Atlantans might have little sympathy, given that some in the far northern suburbs drive nearly as far as a Maconite to get to Hartsfield-Jackson.

But Macon officials say it’s a big deal. Having airline flights allows the surrounding area’s 430,000 residents, and its businesses, better connectivity and a way to avoid both traffic and Hartsfield-Jackson’s long security lines, said Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce president Chip Cherry.

“I think it would be a tremendous impact if we did not have air service,” added Macon mayor Robert Reichert. He noted that Maconites do not have the option of public transportation to get to Hartsfield-Jackson that Atlantans do with MARTA.

GeorgiaSkies also flies between Athens’ Ben Epps Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson under the Essential Air Service program. The Athens contract is also up for renewal.

GeorgiaSkies, created specifically to fly the subsidized routes to Macon and Athens, is a unit of established Arizona-based carrier Pacific Wings. It flies both routes with Cessna 208-B Grand Caravan propeller planes.

On the Athens route, the federal subsidy amounted to $135 per passenger last year, below the $200 cap. The Athens route saw a 41 percent increase in passenger traffic in 2009 compared with 2008.

The Macon route had an 85 percent decline in 2009 compared with 2008, including three-quarters of the year when Delta was flew the route with much larger planes. In its proposal to keep the route, GeorgiaSkies cited a number of reasons for the decline -- close proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson and “easy, end-to-end freeway access make driving a viable and-effective alternative,” for instance. Passengers can take inexpensive ground shuttles. Delays at Hartsfield-Jackson “sometimes exceed the duration of traveling to Macon via surface transportation.”

Greg Kahlstorf, chief executive of Pacific Wings, said the Athens route has done well drawing students and others looking for an inexpensive way to beat unpredictable traffic between the two cities.

Macon’s market, by contrast, skews toward business travelers whose corporate employers tend to book major airlines, Kahlstorf said.

Robins Air Force Base spokesman John Birdsong said people stationed at or doing business at the base used to fly from the nearby Middle Georgia Regional more often when Delta served the route, but now “most of the time they are transported to Atlanta to go out.”

“I guess there’s more limited service out of Macon than there used to be when Delta was serving Macon,” Birdsong said.

As a start-up when it took over the route, GeorgiaSkies faced a tough take-off. It had zero name recognition, flew smaller single-engine planes and lacked Delta’s connections and frequent flier program tie-in.

Still, Kahlstorf said he thinks his company can succeed on the Macon route if its contract is renewed. To boost ridership he wants to reach a code-share deal with a major U.S. carrier, which would allow the bigger carrier to market GeorgiaSkies flights and GeorgiaSkies passengers to get frequent flier benefits. But such an agreement typically involves sharing revenue with the partner carrier, and could require higher fares.

GeorgiaSkies expects higher traffic to bring subsidy levels below the cap within two years, according to its renewal proposal to the DOT.

Other bidders for the Macon route include Gulfstream, Sovereign Air and Charter Air Transport. Gulfstream would operate flights to Orlando and Tampa instead of to Atlanta. The bidders propose using planes ranging in size from 9 to 30 seats.

Reichert, the Macon mayor, said he’s inclined to support GeorgiaSkies for continued service, in part because GeorgiaSkies finally gained facilities on a concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson; initially it was unable to work out a gate lease and operated at a general aviation facility. Reichert worries a new carrier might need similar ramp-up time.

Longtime aviation consultant Mike Boyd, of Colorado-based Boyd Group, said he thinks GeorgiaSkies’ service could succeed if the carrier is able to get a code-sharing deal with Delta. But Boyd thinks Macon is a poor use of the federal subsidy program.

“From Macon you have air service,” he said. “It’s called Hartsfield-Jackson.”

Boyd said the Essential Air Service program is vital for some routes in Alaska or the Far West.

“Those make sense,” Boyd said. “If we can spend $1 billion on running long-haul Amtrak passenger trains across the country, we can spend that on rural air service. But Macon, Athens . . . they’re just a total waste of money.”

The subsidy program, which has $200 million in funding from the aviation trust fund in the fiscal 2010 budget, has survived previous attacks. The Bush administration wanted to slash funding to $50 million but faced opposition from congressmen who represent communities that could be affected.

Reichert said he hopes DOT officials weighing the Macon subsidy will consider that many forms of transportation are subsidized, including driving via the Federal Highway Administration’s road funding.

“In order to be a modern, viable, commercial community, you need to have access to as many different modes of travel as possible,” Reichert said. “People like to be able to fly into their hometown.”

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