Sunday, December 18, 2016

Athens-Ben Epps Airport gets “nibbles” of interest in commercial service



There is “a real interest in Athens” in terms of commercial air service, and airport officials have had “little nibbles” from prospective carriers eyeing Athens-Ben Epps Airport, an airport official told Athens-Clarke County’s mayor and commissioners.

Athens-Ben Epps Airport Authority member Beth Higgins, part of an authority committee looking at air service development, wouldn’t tell the mayor and commission publicly at their Thursday work session exactly which airlines were looking at Athens, citing concerns about revealing any details prematurely.

Higgins did say there is evidence the Athens airport could attract a significant number of commercial passengers, if they could easily get to the top destinations noted in a 2014 study of the airline market in Athens-Clarke, Oconee and parts of eight surrounding counties within a 40-minute drive of Athens-Ben Epps Airport.

According to the Sixel Consulting Group study, the top two destinations for passengers within that “catchment area” are, according to 2013 numbers on ticketed passengers, New York and Washington, D.C. Rounding out the top five destinations for commercial air passengers in the Athens area are south Florida, Chicago and Los Angeles.

According to the study, nearly 93,000 airline tickets to New York were sold in the Athens area in 2013, with almost 75,000 tickets sold for flights to Washington. Bringing even half of those passengers through Athens-Ben Epps Airport would help make commercial service from Athens-Ben Epps Airport viable, Higgins suggested Thursday.

Thus far, though, air carriers serving Athens have flown mostly to Charlotte, where local passengers could transfer to flights to their final destinations. For a short time, service to Atlanta was available, but the last air carrier to serve Athens, the now-defunct SeaPort Airlines, offered service to Nashville.

“Nobody wanted to go to Nashville,” Higgins said, and the Federal Aviation Administration rejected requests that SeaPort be allowed to fly to Charlotte. SeaPort left Athens two years ago, after failing to meet passenger load requirements of the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airlines serving smaller communities.

There are a number of challenges in bringing sustained commercial air service to Athens, Higgins said in a briefing delivered at the mayor and commission’s non-voting work session. One problem is that smaller airlines interested in serving places like Athens are “few and far between.”

And, Higgins said, Athens isn’t the only community looking to attract those carriers.

“We’re not alone in our efforts, and most of the communities I’ve investigated are way ahead of us,” she said.

Major airlines, the so-called “legacy carriers” like Delta, are not much interested in serving relatively short routes, Mayor Nancy Denson and the commissioners learned Thursday. Large airlines have been phasing out the propeller-driven aircraft that have traditionally served shorter routes.

In making the transition to all-jet fleets, airlines have discovered that 50-seat jets are expensive to operate, so they have moved to jets that can carry from 70 to 100 passengers. At that point, though, there is no operational efficiency for the airlines in serving markets like Athens.

There are things that Athens could be doing to help a commercial air carrier develop an interest in Athens, according to Higgins. Part of the approach should be a public-private partnership that integrates air service development with the community’s broader economic development efforts. Already, a working group aimed toward that goal, which includes representatives of Piedmont Athens Regional hospital, the University of Georgia, Georgia Power, the Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, along with local government representatives, has been formed, Higgins told commissioners.

Among the strategies that might be helpful in bringing commercial air service to Athens would be tax incentives, airport incentives like landing-fee waivers, “ticket banks” in which larger local institutions purchase tickets in advance and allocate them as needed to their travelers, and revenue guarantees to airlines that could be funded through a federal Small Community Air Service Development Grant.

“We’re like a poster child for this grant,” Higgins said.

Higgins and the rest of the Airline Committee, along with Airport Director Tim Beggerly, came to the mayor and commission to ask that they consider allocating $65,000 in the upcoming fiscal year to air service development, with $25,000 earmarked for marketing Athens and the airport, $20,000 for consultant services, and another $20,000 for recruiting a commercial air carrier.

The Airline Committee also asked Thursday for permission to apply for a $750,000 federal air service grant.

While commissioners could take no formal action at the work session, some of them did have some suggestions.

Commissioner Andy Herod, who like Higgins noted the virtual monopoly that Delta Air Lines has on commercial service in Atlanta, suggested that some conversation with state and federal lawmakers, to determine their level of interest in supporting a commercial air service venture in Athens that could affect Delta’s bottom line, might be a good place to start to determine the viability of searching out a local commercial air carrier.

Herod also asked whether it might be wise to start looking at Athens-Ben Epps Airport as an air freight center. There is already some air freight flying in to Athens, Beggerly said, but Higgins went on to say that freight aircraft might be too large to use Athens-Ben Epps Airport.

Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson wondered Thursday whether some of the proceeds of the county’s hotel-motel tax might be used to fund the committee’s request for funding for air service development, given that the airport brings people to Athens who do patronize local hotels.

Commissioner Kelly Girtz had the most hard-eyed assessment of commercial air service recruitment efforts. If further efforts toward attracting commercial air service reveal that Athens isn’t in “that sweet spot” for attracting sustainable commercial service, Girtz said, the county might want to consider some sort of transit option linking Athens to the Atlanta airport. At least one private shuttle service already operates between Athens and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

During Thursday’s presentation, Higgins indicated she remains optimistic that some air carriers will figure out a way to offer service from places like Athens to popular destinations.

“There’s got to be a business model out there, and some entrepreneur is going to come into these small airports,” she said.

Source:   http://onlineathens.com

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