Friday, January 27, 2017

Regional airline interested in serving Athens-Ben Epps Airport (KAHN)

A regional air carrier is interested in providing service from Athens-Ben Epps Airport to New York and Washington, D.C., according to a member of a working group assembled to recruit commercial air service for Athens.

Beth Higgins, a member of the Athens-Ben Epps Airport Authority, said the airline — which was not identified, as discussions are ongoing — is interested in providing two daily flights from Athens to New York and Washington aboard 60-passenger regional jets.

As envisioned, New York flights would use nearby Newark Liberty International Airport, with the possibility that service would eventually switch to airports at Islip or White Plains in New York, or to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, Higgins said.

Service to Washington would use Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, about 20 miles from Washington, D.C., according to Higgins.

Over the years, the Athens area has had sporadic service from small airlines linking Athens-Ben Epps Airport at various times to airline hubs in Charlotte, Atlanta and Nashville. But that service relied on the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airline service to and from smaller communities like Athens as long as the airlines maintain certain required passenger loads.

The last airline to provide service from Athens-Ben Epps Airport was Oregon-based SeaPort Airlines, which lost its EAS subsidy more than two years ago after failing to meet passenger-load requirements. SeaPort left Athens in September 2014.

Current efforts to attract an airline to Athens-Ben Epps Airport are focused on finding an airline that would not have to rely on EAS funds, but that would receive some other incentives.

According to a 2014 study of the “catchment area” for Athens-Ben Epps Airport — Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties and portions of eight other counties within a 40-minute drive of the Athens airport — 1,660 people are using commercial air service daily, with 94 percent flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The study by Sixel Consulting Group, based on data from 2013, shows that New York and Washington are the top two destinations for passengers in the local catchment area. According to the study, an average of 127 people fly to or from this area to New York daily, and an average of 102 people fly to or from Washington daily.

The airline now interested in providing commercial service from Athens has operated charter flights from Athens-Ben Epps Airport, Higgins said. The airline is looking at two other cities — one in California, and another in Virginia — as it seeks to expand its regular commercial service, she added. The airline will be expanding to just one of those three cities, Higgins said.

If ongoing discussions with the airline are successful, service from Athens could begin as soon as September in conjunction with the completion of the new commercial air terminal, according to Higgins.

Next month, the working group assembled specifically to attract sustainable regular commercial air service to Athens-Ben Epps Airport will meet to discuss an incentives package that would be offered to the airline. That working group comprises Higgins, along with representatives of the University of Georgia, Piedmont Athens Regional hospital, Georgia Power, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau and Athens-Clarke County government officials.

Among the incentives under consideration, according to a recent presentation by Higgins to Athens-Clarke’s mayor and commission, are landing fee waivers, “ticket banks,” in which large local institutions purchase tickets in advance and allocate them as needed to their travelers, and revenue guarantees that could be funded with a federal Small Community Air Service Development Grant.

The working group has asked the county for permission to apply for a $750,000 federal air service grant. Getting the grant will require a 20 percent match from the county, Higgins said. The working group is trying to determine whether the cost of a new commercial terminal now under construction at the airport, at a cost of $4.5 million, could be considered as covering some part of the required matching funds. The terminal is being built with proceeds of a 1 percent local sales tax approved by Athens-Clarke County voters in 2004.

Additionally, the working group has asked the mayor and commission to include $65,00o in the county budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 to assist in marketing the airport, to cover recruitment expenses, and to provide funding for consultant services.


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