Airline recruitment efforts get vote of confidence from Athens-Clarke commissioners

Athens-Clarke County commissioners have given a vote of confidence to recently redoubled efforts to bring commercial air service to Athens-Ben Epps Airport, approving a $65,000 allocation of local hotel-motel tax revenue to a public-private working group hoping to capitalize on data showing that there are large numbers of airline passengers in the immediate Athens area.

The working group, comprising members of the Athens-Ben Epps Airport Authority, along with representatives of the county government, the University of Georgia, Georgia Power, Piedmont Athens Regional hospital, the Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, is also hoping that the hotel-motel tax allocation approved last week by the commission will help the county attract a $750,000 federal Small Community Air Service Development grant. The SCASD funding could provide some significant incentives for any commercial air carriers that might be looking at Athens and its airport as a potential new market.

Beth Higgins, the airport authority member spearheading efforts to attract sustainable commercial air service to Athens, told commissioners late last year, when she asked for consideration of allocating hotel-motel tax dollars to airline recruitment, that there had been “little nibbles” of interest from prospective carriers eyeing Athens-Ben Epps Airport.

In late January, Higgins reported that a regional air carrier, unidentified thus far, has expressed interest in providing service from Athens to Washington, D.C., and New York. The airline reportedly would offer two flights daily to those cities aboard 60-passenger regional jets, flying into Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport and to Newark Liberty International Airport.

Neither of those destinations are random choices by the carrier. According to a study done for the Athens-Ben Epps Airport Authority by Oregon-based Sixel Consulting Group, which specializes in air service development, data from 2013 show that those two cities are the two top destinations for passengers within the Athens-Ben Epps Airport’s “catchment area,” defined as the area within a 40-minute drive of the airport.

According to the Sixel study, an average of 127 people daily from the local catchment area fly to New York, while an average of 102 people daily fly to Washington.

Overall, the Sixel study notes, 1,660 people within the catchment area use air service daily, with 94 percent flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The working group will use the hotel-motel tax proceeds in a three-pronged approach to attracting sustainable commercial air service to Athens. Under a plan outlined for commissioners by Higgins in December, $25,000 of the hotel-motel tax proceeds will be used to market Athens-Ben Epps Airport as a viable location for commercial air service, $20,000 will go toward airline recruitment efforts, and $20,000 will be steered toward consultant services.

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.

Since then, the only widely reported interest in Athens-Ben Epps Airport, outside of the “nibbles” reported by Higgins and the more recent and apparently serious interest of the unidentified regional carrier, came nearly two year ago when American Airlines considered providing service from Athens to Charlotte via US Airways, which American had, at the time, recently acquired. The airline cited a shortage of both airplanes and pilots as factors in its decision not to come to Athens.

As part of their unanimous vote last week to approve the allocation of hotel-motel tax dollars to the air service working group, Athens-Clarke commissioners also authorized the county to apply for the $750,000 federal grant. If the county gets the grant — last year’s awards were announced by the federal Department of Transportation in June — $250,000 would go to recruiting, marketing and promotions in connection with getting and sustaining local commercial air service, with $500,000 allocated to eventually underwriting incentives such as various forms of ground support for an airline serving Athens, and for providing revenue guarantees to a commercial carrier using Athens-Ben Epps Airport.

Getting the grant would allow Athens-Ben Epps Airport to move away from any reliance on the Essential Air Service program, which has contributed to the sporadic nature of service from Athens in recent years.

For 2016, the Department of Transportation awarded nine Small Community Air Service Development Grants, totaling $5,150,000. All of those grants, to airports in Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Washington, Arizona, California and Idaho, were used in part to provide revenue guarantees, in some instances to specific airlines.

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