Athens-Ben Epps Airport officials and a working group comprising local government, business and institutional representatives “have made some progress” in attracting new commercial air service to Athens, “but nothing we can really announce right now,” airport authority chair Beth Higgins said this week.
However, Higgins added at Tuesday’s authority meeting, there could be “some good announcements” in connection with bringing commercial air service back to Athens, “I hope by this time next month.”
Athens has been without commercial air service since September 2014, when Oregon-based SeaPort Airlines pulled out of its service to Nashville after failing to meet passenger load requirements established as part of the federal Essential Air Service subsidy program. SeaPort was the last in a string of small airlines that had linked Athens-Ben Epps Airport to various hubs, but all of those airlines, like SeaPort, had relied on the EAS subsidy and would eventually leave Athens.
At last report, airport officials and the working group were talking with two potential air carriers. One of those carriers was recently purchased by a major airline, which airport director Tim Beggerly would not identify when he briefed the authority last month. Discussions with this carrier have centered on which hub it would serve from Athens. The local preference, according to Beggerly, is for service from Athens to Charlotte, which is the second-largest hub for American Airlines and is also served by Delta, United, Southwest, Frontier, JetBlue and Lufthansa.
The second carrier expressing some interest in Athens is a charter service that is moving into scheduled air service. One of the selling points for this carrier is its access to a gate at Newark Liberty International Airport, about 15 minutes from midtown Manhattan. A recent study of Athens-Ben Epps Airport’s “catchment” area — within a 40-minute drive of the airport — showed that New York and Washington, D.C., are the top two destinations for local air passengers.
With regard to acquiring and sustaining commercial air service at Athens-Ben Epps Airport, the county government is applying for a $750,000 federal Small Community Air Service Development grant. If the grant application is successful, $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.
Athens-Clarke County commissioners voted recently to allocate $65,000 in local hotel-motel tax revenue to efforts to bring commercial air service to Athens, and the proposed county budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 currently includes a $200,000 outlay for airline recruitment and retention efforts.
Airport officials have, however, been unsuccessful thus far in attracting a significant share of the projected revenue from a proposed 1 percent local sales tax for transportation-related projects that will be the subject of a countywide November referendum.
The airport has made a bid for roughly $14 million of the $103.3 million the tax is projected to raise, but the commission-appointed citizens advisory committee making recommendations on how to allocate the anticipated funding from the five-year tax has recommended only that the airport get $1.5 million to match other funding sources for airport projects.
The committee rejected the airport’s bids for $2.5 million in additional funding for the new $4.5 million commercial terminal now under construction at the airport, for $6.6 million to improve Runway 2/20, one of two runways at the airport, and for $3.3 million for new airport terminal parking. Airport officials had indicated that they would accept lower funding for the three initiatives, totaling $4.5 million, but still failed to make the cut with the committee.
The committee is continuing to develop its list of recommended projects for the proposed Transportation-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax levy, trying to whittle the list to fit the projected revenue. Ultimately, though, Athens-Clarke’s mayor and commission will have the final say on which projects are included in the referendum. They are not bound by the committee’s recommendations, and could include all or part of the airport’s requests in the final project package.
At their Tuesday meeting, airport authority members informally discussed — there weren’t enough members present to conduct official business — communicating with the mayor and commission regarding their full list of proposed TSPLOST projects.
One of those proposed projects — airport terminal parking — is already a need at the airport, and will be important in attracting a new air carrier to Athens, Beggerly indicated at Tuesday’s authority meeting.
In other business Tuesday, Beggerly briefed the authority on plans for the rehabilitation of Runway 9/27. The runway was recently lengthened to accommodate larger and heavier aircraft, but that work did not include any repaving of the existing runway surface, which according to Beggerly is 40 years old.
The $5.65 million project will be funded largely with federal dollars, with 5 percent of the cost being funded by the state and the remaining 5 percent coming from the local government’s capital improvement funds. The work will be timed so as not to interfere with the University of Georgia’s football season, which brings significant air traffic — and revenue, in the form of fuel sales and other services — to the airport.
It is likely, though, that the airport will have to be shut down for one day during the project, as the work crosses Runway 2/20, Beggerly said.