Macon to get subsidized flights again

Macon is set to once again get subsidized flights to Atlanta under a controversial federal program.

The U.S. Department of Transportation selected Silver Airways to operate flights from Macon to Atlanta and Orlando for an annual subsidy of nearly $2 million.

The decision comes after the current carrier, GeorgiaSkies, said it wanted to pull out amid declining passenger counts. The replacement carrier selected last year, Sun Air International, then withdrew before even starting service after encountering “greater challenges than anticipated.”

The Silver Airways flights, expected to start April 1, will be operated with 34-passengers Saab 340B planes for two years — larger than the nine-passenger planes flown by GeorgiaSkies. Fort Lauderdale-based Silver already operates subsidized flights out of Atlanta, after launching routes to six markets last year.

But under reforms to the Essential Air Service subsidy program, Macon must maintain an average of at least 10 passengers boarding planes a day to continue under the program, and the subsidy cannot exceed $1,000 per passenger. The subsidies are offered to airports that would lose airline service without them.

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GeorgiaSkies, which previously received the subsidy but in 2011 started operating the flights without government help, averaged fewer than 3 passengers per day boarding the 80-mile Macon-Atlanta flights in fiscal year 2012.

But Silver, operating with the subsidy, is expected to offer lower fares, which the DOT said “has the potential” to attract more passengers. Silver’s proposal included average fares of $44.90 for Atlanta-Macon flights and $116.67 for Orlando-Macon flights.

“In the past, passenger air service between Macon and Atlanta has steadily declined to the point where it has become almost nonexistent,” the city of Macon said in a written statement. “Macon is hopeful that passenger air service can one day be viable again.”

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