Feds plan to kill flight subsidies in Athens and Macon

Taxpayer-subsidized airline service at small airports in Athens and Macon may soon come to an end, after years of criticism over millions of dollars in federal payments to support service for a handful of passengers a day.

The federal Essential Air Service Program has subsidized airline service at small airports since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.

In Macon, the U.S. Department of Transportation is paying $2 million annually to support daily flights to Atlanta and flights six days a week to Orlando. Yet the flights attract an average of only four passengers a day boarding Silver Airways’ 34-passenger planes, according to the DOT.

In Athens, the subsidy is $1.6 million annually for flights to Nashville that run twice a day during the week on nine-passenger planes. Only about six passengers a day board the SeaPort Airlines flights in Athens.

Now, the DOT is proposing to end subsidies for Athens-Ben Epps Airport, Macon’s Middle Georgia Regional and 11 other airports around the country where the subsidized flights attract fewer than ten passengers a day.

“It’s about time. I think it’s long overdue,” said Greg Kahlstorf, chief executive of Pacific Air Holdings, whose subsidiary GeorgiaSkies once service both Athens and Macon with the subsidies. “This program has been kept alive on artificial life support for decades now… . It’s getting harder for people to stomach that kind of waste now.”

The DOT is applying new standards for subsidies set by Congress in 2012.

The department will take objections to the subsidy terminations for the next 20 days, then make a final decision.

Atlanta-Macon became subsidized after Delta Air Lines said it wanted to drop service on the route in 2007. Since then different small airlines have tried time and again to make the subsidized flight service successful. GeorgiaSkies flew it both with and without the subsidy.

But the service has attracted few passengers in 2009 that the subsidy amounted to $464 per passenger.

City of Macon spokesman Chris Floore said things have improved since then, and Macon just needs time to grow the market since Silver Airways took over the service just last year.

The city plans to appeal the DOT’s proposal and will work with politicians at the national level, Floore said.

“We will take every option to appeal this so we can continue to grow,” Floore said.

Last year, Macon even attempted to get a separate subsidy through the Small Community Air Service program to market its subsidized flights, but the request wasn’t approved.

In Athens, Mayor Nancy Denson said the airline service is important to business people, though she also called the reasoning for the program in Athens “marginal” since the idea behind the program is to assure service to cities that aren’t close to bigger airports.

Denson said the city will likely file an objection, but if the subsidy does come to an end, “I’m hoping that maybe it’s one of those things that may be a blessing in disguise.” She hopes Athens will be able to find an airline to serve the airport without a subsidy.

“It’s not a very comfortable thing to do to drive to Atlanta, park at the airport and try to coordinate your flight,” Denson said. With flights out of Athens, “there’s a huge convenience factor.”

Other airports set to lose their subsidies are Greenville, Miss., and Muscle Shoals, Ala., which have subsidized flights to Atlanta operated by Silver Airways. But Silver announced earlier this month it planned to discontinue those flights and several others.

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